Tomodachi (ともだち, Yukihiro Sawada, 1974)

As the Japanese studio system began to implode in the late 1960s, Nikkatsu which had specialised in youth cinema, pivoted towards softcore pornography rebranding itself as Nikkatsu Roman Porno. At the same time, however, they also launched an unexpected sideline of family films with strong educational aims under the Nikkatsu Children’s Films banner. Selected by the Ministry of Education and recommended by various educational and parent and teacher associations, the second feature put out under the label, 1974’s Tomodachi (ともだち), is in its own way instructional with a strong anti-bullying theme but also has something to say about the literal pollution of the contemporary society. 

As such, the film revolves around the originally unsympathetic hero, Shinta (Hitoshi Abe), who openly bullies a girl in his class by kicking a football at her because she alone has been excused the after school duty of sweeping the school yard. Having transferred from rural Tohoko, Yoshiko (Noriko Suzuki) has developed serious asthma from living in the centre of industrial Kawasaki and has been instructed to avoid physical exertion or activities which might cause her to breath in additional dust and smoke. Shinta and his friends are however entirely insensitive, literally surrounding Yoshiko while they hound her with questions insisting she’s not really “ill” and merely shirking her duty. When the teacher tries to explain to them that Yoshiko has been excused because it would be bad for her heath to be sweeping dust, Shinta and his friends all immediately claim to be ill too, fake coughing and wheezing despite having just been playing football rather than doing their after school chores like the other kids. 

What doesn’t occur to Shinta is the loneliness, isolation, and embarrassment Yoshiko must feel on being singled out because of her illness. Rather poignantly, the school nurse and others describe how cheerful and friendly Yoshiko was when she first arrived only to reflect on how depressed and withdrawn she’s since become. This is partly as Shinta later learns because her classmates rejected her once she became ill. Asthma is obviously not a contagious disease, yet many of the other parents stopped their kids playing with her because of the stigma surrounding any kind of “illness” while simulataneously unwilling to bear the responsibility of needing to care for her if she should undergo an asthma attack while in their home or under their care fearing they would then suffer a reputational loss if they failed to treat her properly. 

For his part, Shinta is intensely resentful when the teacher sits him next to Yoshiko in the hope that his cheerfulness will help bring her out of her shell. Exclaiming that he hates sick people and thinks that Yoshiko is boring and creepy because she doesn’t really say anything, he begins to have second thoughts when the teacher implores him to help “as a man” suddenly discovering a sense of honour and justice that he doesn’t want to let down. His first action however is to continue kicking footballs at her, but strangely it works rather well providing a physical activity which is compatible with her asthma in not needing to move around while allowing her to feel part of the game. As he gets to know her more, Shinta comes to sympathise with his new friend and is angry with the other kids who reject her but discovers that his own parents are not much different refusing him permission to invite Yoshiko over on talking to other parents at the PTA in part because they run a bento store and are nervous of coming under suspicion if anyone notices a girl with a heavy cough coming and going and questions their hygiene practices. 

Shinta does, however, visit her small apartment which is unfortunately right behind a dusty construction site. As she explains, Yoshiko’s parents were part of a new agricultural drive which later failed and left them with massive debts which is why they had to leave the country to work in a factory in Kawasaki. As her parents often work late shifts for the extra money, she has to look after not only herself but her younger brother with only a pet squirrel for company. Constant references are made to other children having to change schools because their parents moved into a company dorm, while the poor quality of the air is repeatedly given as the cause of Yoshiko’s illness literally choked by the thoughtless post-war economic drive that continues to disrupt not only family lives but the local environment, Shinta also revealing that his parents used to farm seaweed but were forced to stop because of industrial pollution in local rivers. 

This destructive industry also creates unintended divisions among the children along class lines between those whose parents work manual jobs in the factories and those whose families are wealthier and involved in white collar work. The ring leader of the girls who reject Yoshiko, Ayako (Masayo Koga) is the daughter of a wealthy conservative family living in a large house with a mother (Yoshie Kitsuta) who wears kimono. When Ayako shuns her the other girls follow, Yoshiko inviting them to her birthday party only to discover them all together eating cake at Ayako’s house instead. She’d invited them partly out of worry that they were offended she hadn’t invited them to her small apartment, only then realising that they rejected her because of the stigma towards her illness leaving her feeling hopeless and dejected. As Shinta later points out, this kind of emotional pain negatively impacts her medical condition coming to despise the adult world describing his father as the worst in his class for his insistence that he should accept the way the world works rather than idealistically trying to help his new friend. 

The message of the film, however, is that it’s wrong to leave people out and that children in particular should always attempt to friendly with each other. Developing appendicitis, Shinta comes to a new appreciation of how difficult it can be being ill while his mother too starts to regret her decision finally inviting Yoshiko to come and visit them at their home after spotting her sadly walking around outside uncertain if it’s alright to come and visit Shinta on his sickbed. Shinta’s two best friends had also been not entirely supportive of his decision to bring Yoshiko into their group, referring to her as “goldfish poo” in her tendency to trail along behind them, though partly out of jealousy along with the natural awkwardness of a girl suddenly being introduced into a previously all male club but even they eventually come round and decide to reaffirm their friendship. Despite this rosy conclusion in which the other children are convinced to abandon their unfair prejudices and become friends with each other, the eventual conclusion seems rather cruel if returning to the minor theme of the destructive effects of increasing industrialisation even as Shinta’s father is also reminded of the importance of friendship in stating an intention to attend his own primary school reunion. A touching coming-of-age tale, Tomodachi puts its young hero through the emotional wringer but also allows him to discover a strong sense of justice and empathy towards those rejected by their society. 


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

 

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)