The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.

A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Seijun Suzuki, 1973)

vlcsnap-2018-05-28-23h20m55s542After getting fired from Nikkatsu for making films which made no sense and no money, Seijun Suzuki cemented his place as a thorn in the side of the establishment by suing them for breach of contract. The “dispute” dragged on, eventually seeing him blacklisted by the other major studios and unable to make a feature film for ten years. This did not mean however that Suzuki was entirely idle between the releases of Branded to Kill and his 1977 “comeback” movie A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. Like many other directors who found themselves adrift in the changing film industry, Suzuki busied himself with short projects for television, both commercials and stand alone episodes of anthology series including one for Eiji Tsuburaya’s Twilight Zone-esque Horror Theater Unbalance.

Horror Theater Unbalance, produced by Tsuburaya Pro, was in keeping with the studio’s other similarly themed horror and science fiction SFX series but took the form of 13 one off one hour dramas. Although production began in earnest in 1969, filming didn’t finish until 1972 and the series eventually aired in 1973. Many of the episodes were inspired by well known mystery stories and each also featured a framing sequence in which author/actor/TV personality (and later politician) Yukio Aoshima introduced and then wrapped up the tale à la Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, or perhaps Cookie Monster whilst sitting in a creepy mansion filled with weird skeletal objet d’art. Tsuburaya Pro was able to mop up some prime Nikkatsu talent which was gradually seeping out of the studio as it crept towards its eventual rebirth as the producer of Nikkatsu Roman Porno. This included not only Suzuki but also Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita among others, as well as outlying figures from the independent world such as Kazuo Kuroki.

The first to be broadcast, Suzuki’s episode was adapted from a short story by Fumiko Enchi whose recurrent themes share much with those of the director in her frequent use of fantasy and eroticism. A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Miira no Koi) is technically a triple tale as it contains an internal framing sequence in addition to the broader one common to the series. The lead is actually Shoko (Misako Watanabe) – a widowed middle-aged editor working with her now elderly professor on a new version of a classic tale from Japanese literature. Her memory is sparked when she catches sight of an oddly vacant-looking monk in the back of a car – eerily like the one in the story which revolves around the discovery of a monk who was buried alive as way of achieving enlightenment but has recently (or perhaps not) begun ringing his bell to alert those above to his conscious presence.

One of the villagers, Shoji, becomes fascinated with the idea of the unsleeping monk. When they dig up the corpse it’s a stiff, strangely robust skeleton which some of the villagers end up using for a game of punt the monk, but little by little his flesh returns. He is not, however, as enlightened as one might hope. To begin with he’s a gibbering wreck, and then finally something more like a crazed sex pest whose pent up amorous energy eventually wears out his new “wife” in a matter of days when she suddenly gives “birth” to a small army of mini dust buddhas. Shoji is sick of the monk and wants to get rid of him, but when he takes his own wife sometime later all he can hear is the sound of a little tinkling bell and suddenly he can’t bear to touch her.

The theme seems to be that unquenched desire will drive you insane with the ambiguous addition that desire itself is best overcome rather than satisfied. Having recounted to us the story of the monk, Shoko finds his tale echoing in her own life. A war widow she lost her husband young and has experienced near constant sexual harassment from her former professor, now bedridden and defeated. Unbeknownst to her, the professor has been keeping her engagement photo in his study for the last decade. He claims that it’s not impossible for an ordinary many to resurrect himself solely through the power of enduring sexual desire, rightly (but somewhat inappropriately) implying that Shoko too harbours lingering desires which have gone unsatisfied since her husband’s passing.

The story culminates with Shoko’s pleading hope for a resurrection as she unwittingly arrives at the place of her husband’s death where she encounters a strange man who might or might not be her late spouse. Making either real or hallucinatory love atop a grave with either a resurrected corpse, a ghost, a phantom of memory, out of body spirit, or just a random rough man talking shelter from the rain, Shoko is a prisoner of her desires but the source of her visitation remains difficult to discern.

Working within a TV budget, Suzuki reins himself in but lends his idiosyncratic sense of ironic fun to an otherwise gloomy, dread-laden tale as the villagers gleefully kick around the dried corpse of the old monk as if he were a long buried football and then seem to meet an unquiet knowingness in his ever hungry eyes. Peppered with surrealist touches, Suzuki’s contribution to Horror Theater Unbalance is a heady affair but one imbued with his characteristic twinned sense of irony and wistful melancholy in a tale of those undone by unresolved longing.


Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Shinji Somai, 1985)

Lost-Chapter-of-Snow-Passion dvd coverShinji Somai’s work is most closely identified with depictions of contemporary young people who meet their approaching adulthood with an almost nostalgic melancholy but in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Yuki no Dansho: Jonetsu), he takes things one step further as his orphaned heroine moves through dependence to independence and finally assumes her own identity. Based on a novel by Marumi Sasaki, Lost Chapter also fits neatly into the idol movie subgenre, starring the then popular singer and actress Yuki Saito who sings frequently throughout the film and provides the end titles theme Jonetsu (Passion).

As the film opens, seven year old orphan Iori (Mami Nakazato) has been adopted by the wealthy but cruel Naba family who regard her as a slave, to be beaten, humiliated and pressed into service. One day, an employee of Naba’s, Yuichi (Takaaki Enoki), visits and witnesses Iori’s cruel treatment at the hands of oldest sister Sachiko (Kyoko Fujimoto), immediately taking her home to live with him. The situation is difficult, especially as Iori’s past has led her to be wary of new connections, and her sudden arrival has also placed a strain on Yuichi’s engagement to a girl still living in Tokyo far away from snowy Sapporo. Ten years pass and Iori (Yuki Saito) has become a happy, healthy high school girl but the resurfacing of the Naba sisters in her life is to have profound consequences when one of them is murdered and Iori finds herself regarded as a prime suspect.

Embracing its almost Dickensian roots, Lost Chapter’s most obvious theme is the place, or displacement, of the orphaned within Japanese society which places the family above all else. Iori’s origins are never mentioned beyond her early life in an orphanage, but even when Yuichi brings her home the first words the housekeeper offers are that a discarded child like Iori maybe trouble, assuming that she is the result of a “loose woman’s” weakness and irresponsibility. The Nabas, who are a thoroughly unpleasant bunch ruled over by older sister Sachiko, have adopted her despite being an already large family but raising a lonely child in love was not their aim so much as getting a kitchen maid they wouldn’t have to pay. Iori is sent out on pointless errands through the snow and freezing air only to fear she will be beaten for having drunk the juice she was sent to buy on Sachiko’s behalf. This fate is not unique to Iori as she discovers when Daisuke (Kiminori Sera), a friend of Yuichi’s who has become like a second father to her, reveals his orphan past as a poor relation sheltered by family members but not quite embraced by them.

Iori’s poor treatment at the Naba’s is offered as a possible motive for the murder of Hiroko (Mai Okamoto) – younger sister to Sachiko and a student in the same class as Iori. Hiroko is fairly depressed and a flighty girl, still cruel and eager to show off in front of her former step-sister with a lengthy dance sequence offered in front of the hottest boys at school. When she dies suddenly, all evidence points to a cup of coffee Iori tried to take her in kindness but even if it wasn’t Iori who plotted to kill her, Hiroko’s death is still firmly linked to her family’s cruel superiority.

The strain of the investigation plays on Iori’s mind, forcing her into a deeper consideration of her place within Yuichi’s household especially as she’ll soon be approaching the crossroads of adulthood and will need to decide whether to go on to university or leave Yuichi’s house to be independent. In the housekeeper’s mind, staying at “home” is not an option once she could, theoretically, support herself but Yuichi and Daisuke may feel quite differently about this damaged little girl they once took in and are still in the process to turning into a fine young woman. Yuichi’s housekeeper has a choice metaphor regarding Yuichi’s intentions in rescuing Iori – pointing to a withered flower, she suggests that Iori was a thirsty seed that Yuichi has been patiently watering in order to see the flowers bloom, but this way of viewing the situation places a further wedge between Iori and Yuichi who is still seeing his fiancée in Tokyo while Iori’s feelings about the father figure who raised her but is also still a handsome, kind, and youngish man have begun to become confused.

Falling into shojo romance territory, Lost Chapter does indeed become a slightly uncomfortable romantic tale in which a young woman falls in love with her “father” and he with her though, as they aren’t blood related, it can still be depicted as sweet and innocent rather than a tale of long term grooming and inappropriate power structures. Yuichi, though obviously a kind and socially minded young man, is nevertheless as “irresponsible” as he’s branded in his neglect of his longterm fiancée (who later makes an embarrassing first visit in nine years to Yuichi’s home to ask Iori to back off and finally declare herself grown up so she and Yuichi can marry), and later positing of Iori as some kind of pet project in his determination to have her graduate university – a feather in his cap rather than a stepping stone to a middle-class life for his precious daughter.

Known for his long, roaming, handheld takes Somai opens with a 14 minute seemingly unbroken, dreamlike sequence recounting Iori’s life with the Nabas and her eventual rescue. Somai’s camera pans around a series of snow trenches, placing a phone call from Tokyo right inside the icy space alongside a hidden violin player scoring the action. Shot with the random, etherial quality of memory mixed with dream, this first sequence gives way to a more conventional main body even if Somai maintains his preference for long takes filled with surprising pans and unexpected entrances into the frame. There are great moments of tenderness and warmth in Iori’s story, brought to life by Somai’s noticeably expressionist techniques, but there’s pain and darkness too as death and suicide lurk in the background, ready to strike at any moment. A beautifully surreal, theatrical exploration of a standard coming of age tale Lost Chapter is both shojo romance at its most controversial and a fine showcase for a popular idol shining in a leading role.


Originally released as a double header with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Four Sisters.

14 minute long take intro (no subtitles)

Yuki Saito singing Jonetsu on a Japanese TV show presumably around the time of the film’s release.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013:

The Catch (魚影の群れ, Shinji Somai, 1983)

the-catchSome men become their work, the quest for success consumes them to the extent that there is barely anything left other than the chase. The Catch (魚影の群れ, Gyoei no Mure), Shinji Somai’s 1983 opus of fishermen at home on the waves and at sea on land is a complex examination of masculinity but also of fatherhood in a rapidly declining world filled with arcane ritual and ancient thought.

Fusajiro (Ken Ogata) is a middle aged man who looks old for his years. Man and boy he’s spent his life at sea, hunting down the elusive tuna fish which can be sold for vast amounts of money in the rare event that one is actually caught. This “first summer” as the title card refers to it, marks a change in his life as the daughter he’s been raising alone since his wife left him many years ago, Tokiko (Masako Natsume), has found a man she wants to marry. Her boyfriend, Shunichi (Koichi Sato), owns a coffee shop in town and Fusajiro has his doubts about a city boy marrying into a fisherman’s family. However, Shunichi isn’t just interested in Tokiko, he wants to set sail too. Though originally reluctant, Fusajiro eventually agrees to take Shunichi as a kind of apprentice but is dismayed when he gets seasick and seems to have no hint of a fisherman’s instinct.

Fusajiro is a legend among his peers – a big man of the sea, a true sailor and top hunter. He’s the one people turn to whenever anything goes wrong on the waves. However, he’s also a gruff man who speaks little and seems to prefer his own company.  In the rare event that he is speaking, it’s generally about tuna. When Shunichi first meets Fusajiro he remarks that he knew it must be him because he “smells of the sea”.

A later scene sees Fusajiro catch sight of a woman caught in the rain who immediately starts running away from him. Chasing her  just like one of his ever elusive tuna he eventually pins the woman down and takes her back to his boat to complete his conquest. The woman turns out to be his ex-wife, who left him precisely because of this violent behaviour. After momentarily considering returning to him, she realises that he hasn’t changed and accuses him of being unable to distinguish people from fish – he hooks them, reels them in, and if they don’t come willingly he hits them until they do so he can keep them with him. This overriding obsession with domination also costs Fusajiro his daughter when Shunichi is gravely injured on the boat and Fusajiro delays returning to port until he’s secured the tuna he was chasing at the time. Shunichi’s blood and the fish’s mingle together on the deck, one indistinguishable from the other, both victims of Fusajiro’s need to reign supreme over man and fish alike.

Fusajiro tried to warn Tokiko not to marry a fisherman, it would only make her miserable. Shunichi is warned that a fisherman’s life is a difficult one and the seas in this area less forgiving than most, but his mind is made up. Finally acquiring his own boat after selling his cafe, Shunichi, just like Fusajiro, starts to fall under the fisherman’s curse – endlessly chasing, living only for the catch. Unlike Fusajiro, however, Shunichi has little instinct for life at sea and fails to bring home his prey. Little by little, the mounting failures eat away at his self esteem as he feels belittled and humiliated in front of the other sailors culminating in an attempt to reinforce his manhood by raping his own wife. These men are little better than animals, consumed by conquest, permanently chasing at sea and on land. To be defeated, is to be destroyed.

Somai never shies away from the grimness and brutality of the work at hand. Ogata catches and spears these magnificent fish for real and the unfortunate creatures are then carved up right on the dockside before our very eyes. As we’re constantly reminded, physical strength is what matters for a fisherman and Fusajiro is a strong man, duelling with the tuna fish and straining to hold the line with all his might. Yet he’s getting old, his body is failing and like an aged toreador in the ring, his victory is no longer assured. The Japanese title of the film which translates as crowds of shadows of solitary fish expresses his nature more clearly, his fate and the tuna’s are the same – a lonely battle to the death. Unable to forge real human connections on land Fusajiro and his ilk are doomed to live out their days alone upon the sea wreaking only misery for those left behind on the shore.


Original trailer (No subtitles, graphic scenes of animal cruelty)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.

No Grave for Us (俺達に墓はない, Yukihiro Sawada, 1979)

No Grave for Us posterThough he might not exactly be a household name outside of Japan, the late Yusaku Matsuda was one of the most important mainstream stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Had he not died at the tragically young age of 40 after refusing chemotherapy for bladder cancer to star in what would become his final film, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, he’d undoubtedly have continued to move on from the action genre in which he’d made his name. No Grave For Us (俺達に墓はない, Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai) is fairly typical of the kinds of films he was making in the late ‘70s as he once again plays a cool, streetwise hoodlum mixed up in a crazy crime world where no one can be trusted.

The film begins with a humorous incident in which a man sets fire to a small parcel in the ladies’ area of a department store and loudly starts shouting about a bomb before using the resulting panic and chaos to calmly extract the money from the nearby tills. His plan is going perfectly except for one cashier who’s rooted to the spot, confused by the rat who lives under the counter who isn’t perturbed by the presence of a “bomb”. Shima makes off with his money and starts planning a new job which he plans to carry out with his longtime friend and brother in arms Ishikawa. The pair carry out a robbery on a rival gang but an ex-yakuza, Takita, tries to make off with the loot. Shima and Takita bond and agree to split the money but Ishikawa gets captured and subjected to humiliating treatment by the gangsters. The intrusion of Takita and of the resurfacing problematic shopgirl, Michi, slowly drive a wedge between the previously inseparable Shima and Ishikawa.

No Grave for Us is, as the title suggests, a noir inflected B-movie in which the lowlife punk Shima contends with the various trials and tribulations associated with a life of petty crime. Child of an uncaring society, he’s been in and out of trouble since adolescence. He met Ishikawa when the pair were both in reform school together, Shima for assault and Ishikawa for drug related offences. Shima is not a drug user and seems to disapprove of his friend’s habit but makes no great protest against it. When Michi turns up at Ishikawa’s bar (just by coincidence) she’s lost her job at the department store after being accused of taking the money that Shima stole. It turns out that she too is a junkie and has been living a life of dissipation since being picked up for prostitution during middle school. She fits right in with Shima and Ishikawa but, predictably, begins to prefer the more assured Shima to the loose cannon Ishikawa which begins to present something of a problem for the pair.

Shima and Takita originally reach an understanding based on a gangster code of honour which they both understand. Ishikawa aside, the pair would make a good team but their growing comradeship only adds to Ishikawa’s sense of insecurity causing him to take matters into his own hands with fairly disastrous consequences. A misunderstanding makes Takita and Shima mortal enemies putting an end to any kind of alliance that might have been possible. There’s no comradeship here, no true friendship. Every relationship is a possible betrayal waiting to take place, every warmth a weakness.

Director Yukihiro Sawada had mostly worked in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line other than co-helming Sogo Ishii’s first feature, Panic High School, the previous year but No Grave for Us is refreshingly light on exploitative content. There is some brief nudity but nothing particularly out of keeping for a regular studio picture of the time. Likewise, the fights are of a more realistic nature and bloodshed kept to a minimum. The look of the film is also very typical of its era though Sawada only rarely uses the extreme zooms which are the hallmark of ‘70s cinema opting for a more straightforward, often static, approach. The film’s jazz inspired score also helps to bring out its noir undertones as these three guys who could have been allies find themselves turning on each other for the most trivial of reasons.

In many ways there’s nothing particularly special about No Grave for Us save for being an excellent example of mainstream action cinema in the late ‘70s. The film is full of knowing references to other recent genre hits as well as popular culture of the time including a lengthy tribute to top idol group Pink Lady whose song Zipangu also features on the soundtrack, and has an all round “cool” sensibility to it that was no doubt very popular at the time of its original release. An enjoyable enough genre effort, No Grave for Us is an impressively handled slice of late ‘70s noir inspired B-movie action but perhaps has little else to recommend it.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and a clip of Pink Lady performing Zipangu, just because