Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Enjo (炎上, Kon Ichikawa, 1958)

a0212807_23483150Kon Ichikawa turns his unflinching eyes to the hypocrisy of the post-war world and its tormented youth in adapting one of Yukio Mishima’s most acclaimed works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Inspired by the real life burning of the Kinkaku-ji temple in 1950 by a “disturbed” monk, Enjo (炎上, AKA Conflagration / Flame of Torment) examines the spiritual and moral disintegration of a young man obsessed with beauty but shunned by society because of a disability.

The film begins near its ending as a young boy with a monk’s haircut sits in a police interrogation room. He was found passed out in the woods behind a burning temple with two knife wounds on his chest plus the knife and a packet of matches lying next to him. The police would quite like to know why he, obviously, set fire to one of Japan’s most popular historical monuments, but the boy refuses to speak.

At this point we enter a series of extended flashbacks as the boy, Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa), enters the Soen Temple after his father’s death as an apprentice to the head monk there, Tayama, who was a friend of his father’s. The assistant chief monk is unhappy about this as he’s long wanted his own son to be accepted as a novice with an eye to one day inheriting the temple as the current head monk is not married and has no son of his own. When the other monks find out that the reason Goichi rarely speaks is his stammer, they begin to doubt his suitability to become a representative of their organisation.

Having grown up in a temple, Goichi idolised his father and wants nothing other than to become a monk himself. His father also loved the golden temple, “Shukaku-ji” more than anything else in the world and so it has come to symbolise a shining pillar of purity for the young Goichi who will stop at nothing to protect it. Simply being allowed to be near it is enough for him. That the temple survived the wartime air raids and subsequent chaos is nothing short of a miracle, if not proof of the gods’ love for it.

Yet, Goichi burns it down. He destroys this thing that he loved above all else, so why did he do it? The temple is too good for the world, too pure to be permitted to exist. Simply put, we don’t deserve it. One of Goichi’s earliest attempts to protect the sacred environs of the monument sees him physically push a woman away from its doors. The woman, dressed in a very modern style, had been having an argument with a GI and though it originally looks as if Goichi may come to her rescue it’s the temple he runs for. After the woman lands flat on her back, the GI thanks him for saving them “a lot of trouble with the baby”.

After having committed an unintended sin in defending his beloved temple from being defiled by an impure woman, Goichi has the urge to confess but never quite brings himself to do it. This begins to create a rift between himself and his mentor the head priest. Though the priest had been his champion, Goichi always doubted that he really saw him as a possible successor because of his stammer and only now realises that the priest has lost faith in him because of his cowardliness in not informing him of the incident with woman outside Shukaku-ji. After this slight the priest goes on supporting Goichi but not with the same warmth as before and Goichi eventually comes to resent him.

The priest has feet of clay – though it’s not unusual for priests to marry and have families, Tayama has nominally dedicated himself to the temple only, leaving himself with a problem as to its succession. However, Goichi discovers that the priest has a mistress in one of the most popular geisha houses in Kyoto. The monks are some of the wealthiest people around thanks to pimping out Shukaku-ji as a major tourist attraction and Tayama has already forgotten himself, becoming lost in the “worldliness” necessary to manage a religious establishment which is actually a lucrative business enterprise. The temple is itself defiled, prostituted, by the very people who are supposed to be protecting it and the proceeds fed back into funding an “immoral” lifestyle for its “CEO”.

This hypocrisy adds to the injustice dealt Goichi by the uncharitable nature of the monks who also, like just about everyone else, shun him because of his stammer. Though he never stammers reading the sutras and can even speak English plainly, his lifelong stutter has left him reluctant to speak and he finds only one friend at the temple. Later he meets another bad tempered man with a lame leg and the two develop an odd bond based on their shared “deformities”. Kashiwagi (Tatsuya Nakadai) is at odds with the world and encourages Goichi further onto the course of mistaken anger born of insecurity. He urges Goichi to test Tayama’s true virtue by constantly provoking him which only leads to a further fall in Goichi’s fortunes. However, Kashiwagi is also shown up for a hypocrite who exploits other people’s reactions to his disability for his own advantage.

All of Goichi’s idols fall. His parents – his mother an adulteress and his father a sickly heartbroken monk, his mentor a lecherous hypocrite and his friend a self hating coward. The world he saw in Shukaku-ji can never exist, humans are fallible and always will be including Goichi himself who is tormented by dark thoughts. An idealistic absolutist, the existence of Shukaku-ji in this imperfect world becomes to much for him to bear.

Ichikawa tells his story in a fractured, dreamlike way full of gentle dissolves as one period segues into another without warning. Goichi’s memories become more disparate and keenly focussed at the same time as his spiritual health deteriorates. Ichikawa tries to capture some of Goichi’s inner claustrophobia through the oppressive architecture of the temple environment but can’t get close to the pervading sense of dread in Mishima’s novel. Enjo is the dissection of one man’s self immolation in the fire of his own spiritual disintegration but is also a condemnation of the corrupting modern world which enables such pollution to take place and its tale of the doomed innocence of the idealist is one which is retold throughout history.


I can’t seem to find any video clips of this film, but as a side note 炎上 is current Japanese netslang for a flamewar so I did find a bunch of other “interesting” stuff.

Here’s a short video featuring clips from several of Ichikawa’s films including Enjo which you’ll be able to spot what with the temple on fire and everything…