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)

Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

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. 


Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (子連れ狼 親の心子の心, Buichi Saito, 1972)

baby-cart-in-perilNow four instalments into the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been on the road for quite some time, seeking vengeance against the Yagyu clan who framed Ogami for treason, murdered his wife, and stole his prized position as the official Shogun executioner. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (子連れ狼 親の心子の心, Kozure Okami: Oya no Kokoro Ko no Kokoro) is the first in the series not to be directed by Kenji Misumi (though he would return for the following chapter) and the change in approach is very much in evidence as veteran Nikkatsu director Buichi Saito picks up the reins and takes things in a much more active, full on ‘70s exploitation direction. Where Baby Cart to Hades was content to take a break for contemplation of Ogami’s quest, Baby Cart in Peril is a post-thought spring into action. It is, however, among the most melancholic episodes in the series as it continues to explore the often precarious position of women and the disenfranchised poor in Ogami’s often cruel world.

Opening with a thrilling action sequence in which a topless and heavily tattooed female warrior elegantly despatches a series of enemies, Saito makes the most of the genre’s tendency for economy to jump straight to a scene of Ogami receiving the request to assassinate her. As they travel onward, father and son become accidentally separated after Daigoro wanders off to follow a pair of street performers. Looking for his dad in all the familiar places he can think of, Daigoro unwittingly comes into contact with an old foe, Gunbei (Yoichi Hayashi) – son of Ogami’s arch enemy, Lord Retsudo, who is immediately alarmed by the steely look in Daigoro’s eyes which he claims is only born of mass killing. Daigoro gets himself into trouble when he’s accidentally caught in a field of long grass which the local peasants are set to clear by burning, but gets himself out of it by cleverly digging himself into the mud. Gunbei, impressed, is poised to execute Daigoro on the spot but luckily Ogami turns up to save the day.

Once Ogami has accepted a contract he will see it through but this one brings him no pleasure as his target, Oyuki (Michi Azuma), has a sad story to rival his own. A skilled swordswoman, she finds employment with a local clan but is deceived and then raped by one of their retainers leading her to escape and seek her vengeance. Oyuki’s origins lie in an underclass of street performers, loosely grouped into a clan of their own but with communities spanning the entire country. On meeting Oyuki’s father, Ogami’s sorrow in his task deepens as he finds him to be an honest, decent and kind man who accepts his forthcoming suffering with a weary resignation. Further torn between his contract and his personal judgement, Ogami steps back to allow his target to avenge her honour but then must obey his own.

Baby Cart in Peril, even more so than the other chapters, dives into the parent and bond between Ogami and Daigoro as Ogami is once again forced to consider if he made the right choice for his son in bringing him into the “Demon’s Way” of death dealing vengeance. Oyuki, thoroughly and heartbreakingly alone, is distressed to learn that her own father also consents to her death but in Ogami’s view, it’s sometimes lucky to have a parent who wishes for the death of their child. This uncomfortable idea leads him back into that first fateful decision when he allowed Daigoro to choose the sword or the ball and then consented to his choice of the sword. Oyuki also chose the sword as a child and has paid heavily for it, yet more so than Daigoro will ever be she is a victim of her class and gender, subject to a second set of rules of which Daigoro and his father live on the opposing side.

Betrayed, scarred and in the view of the world she lives in defiled, Oyuki has every right as much to seek her vengeance as Ogami has, yet Ogami has already agreed to carry out her sentence for breaking the rules of that same world. He does, however sympathise and feel sorry her plight which is not so different from his own though hers is a heavier burden. Treating Oyuki with far more respect than his previous targets which have all been in some way guilty of crimes against samurai honour, Ogami also tries to help her father whose adherence to that same code (with a sincerity absent from the countless “true samurai” he’s encountered so far despite being a member of an underclass) has sparked his admiration but Ogami is unable to salvage anything at all from the rapacious hands of the uncaring lords.

Baby Cart in Peril marks the return of evil antagonist Lord Retsudo (Tatsuo Endo), not seen since the first instalment, which hints at Ogami finally getting closer to his goal even as Retsudo and his (disgraced) son Gunbei amp up their plotting. This climaxes during one of the large scale brawl scenes the films are famous for as Ogami faces off against hordes of grey clad ninja and basket heads in white. Though badly injured, Ogami makes his way onward even whilst Gunbei celebrates his survival in order that he might face him on equal footing and end his own cycle of vengeance in person.

From the exciting action packed opening, the fight scenes are once again innovative in design including a surprising sequence in which Ogami is attacked by ninjas masquerading as statues in a temple. Saito’s approach is much more contemporary than Misumi’s artful aesthetic, prioritising speed over beauty though that’s not to say the film lacks for impressive visuals. Baby Cart in Peril breaks from the series pattern in adding in other narrative devices from film cycles of the time as in the narrative voice over and greater use of non-diegetic music most obviously when Daigoro’s forlorn wandering turns into a kind of sad music video. Nevertheless, even if Baby Cart in Peril sinks a little from the artistic highs of the first three instalments, it does at least embrace some of its more outlandish elements with a degree of self aware witticism that plays to its exploitation roots. The baby cart and its master have escaped the peril for now, but Ogami and his son are still bound on the Demon Way leaving the sad story of Oyuki behind them. Lord Retsudo may be coming into vision but the road stretches on promising nothing other than death and suffering for all who travel it.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only, NSFW)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-baby-cart-to-hadesOgami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his (slightly less) young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) are going to hell in a baby cart in this third instalment of the six film series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni Mukau Ubaguruma). The former shogun executioner, framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan intent on assuming his position, is still on the “Demon’s Way”, seeking vengeance and the restoration of his clan’s honour with his toddler son safely ensconced within a bamboo cart which also holds its fair share of secrets. In the previous chapter, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Ogami’s stoic personality came to the fore as he showed that sometimes there is more strategic value to be found in avoiding a fight rather than charging into one where it isn’t necessary. Baby Cart to Hades will further test this element of his life philosophy as he finds himself bound onwards, seeking his redemption.

Neatly attaching Daigoro’s cart for towing, Ogami boards a boat which appears to be being followed by underwater ninjas, if the reeds he notices whilst using his sword as a mirror are anything to go by. Also on the boat is a distressed young woman, apparently on her way to be sold to a brothel. Diagoro takes pity on the girl and catches her tiny bundle of belongings when the loquacious middle man knocks them overboard. Later they all end up at the same inn where the unfortunate woman kills her procurer when he attempts to rape her (bad business decision as that would be). Daigoro takes pity on the woman once again and Ogami decides to help her, especially after he notices the wooden memorial tablet among her belongings. Rather than fight off the brothel running samurai who come to find her, Ogami agrees to undergo the torture which is the alternative to entering a brothel on the girl’s behalf.

In addition to saving a life from fear and suffering, Ogami’s forbearance also earns him the respect of the madam in question, Torizo (Yuko Hama), who has another job for him. Her older sister was raped at the court of their lord and subsequently committed suicide, she and her father would like him dead and are willing to pay for it. Amusingly enough, the corrupt lord in question also tries to hire Ogami for another assassination for which he will pay double, but Ogami is an honest man. This latest mission brings him closer to his fated battle with the Yagyu but the Demon’s Way is long and Ogami is not yet approaching its end.

Directed once again by Kenji Misumi, this third instalment is much less psychedelic and action packed than the preceding film but seems keener to explore more of Ogami’s world which is often cruel and unforgiving. An early scene in the film features a discussion between four mercenaries, one a fine samurai who refuses to associate too much with the other three who are of a much more earthy character. Caring only for women and sake, the three men live a life of banditry by another name, fleeting from one clan to another participating in parades to bulk out an otherwise lacking show of force. Kanbei (Go Kato), by contrast, at least has a consciousness of the “true samurai” and a conflicted heart when it comes to his way of life. Having been a loyal retainer and later betrayed by the very lord he was seeking to protect over a matter of protocol, he has lost sight of his place in the world but knows himself to be superior to these venal, dishonest, empty scabbards for hire.

These same three men then attempt to have some sport with a well to do mother and daughter unwisely travelling with a single attendant. After despatching their escort, the three rape the two women before turning to Kanbei for help to clear up the giant mess they’ve just made. Kanbei does indeed clear it up by killing the two women in the gentlest and most elegant way he can before instructing the three culprits to draw lots – one of them will have to die and take the blame for everything to avoid getting entangled with the local police. Neither Kanbei or Ogami arrive in time to save the two women, whose deaths are both a solution to their “defilement” and the means to coverup a crime, leaving two thirds of the perpetrators free to commit the same crime again further along the road. Female life is both cheap and worth a lot of money to the right people, though there are precious few willing to defend it as a matter of honour – even Ogami’s decision to help the young woman about to be sold against her will has more to do with the cosmic coincidence of her memorial tablet than a desire to defend a vulnerable girl in trouble.

Where the dying monologue in Baby Cart at the River Styx was about the elegance and nobility of killing, Baby Cart to Hades focuses on the nature of the “true samurai” as the similarly disenfranchised Kanbei and Ogami discuss the “proper” way of life and death. Kanbei, like Ogami, is a brave man who served his lord in his own way, only to accomplish his mission and be cast out by those who disagreed with his methods. Is it really wrong to fight to live, rather than prepare to die? Both men say no, but the conclusion that is reached is that a samurai can only live by death. Meeting for the first time, Kanbei requests a dual from Ogami, promising to care for his son if only he survives. Ogami agrees but later sheaths his sword and declares the fight a draw. He would rather not fight a man who appears to be his equal in every way and has no quarrel with him, though the two will meet again for an unavoidable showdown.

Misumi is more straightforward his direction save for a few expressionist scenes of the bright sunset and a dramatic switch to POV as a head is severed from its body and rolls away. Nevertheless the ninja antics become ever more impressive, as do Ogami’s methods of detecting them. Once again Ogami attracts the attention of a grateful woman in the person of Torizo who, in keeping with the previous two chapters, watches him push his baby cart away with tears in her eyes (all accompanied by the first appearance of a closing ballad in the series). There are a lot more bodies behind him now as Ogami strides away from a battlefield littered with corpses, yet he’s seemingly no closer to achieving his goal despite his brush with the Yagyu. The price of vengeance is increasing, but the Demon Way is long, and Ogami must follow it to its end, no matter where it leads.


Original trailer (German subtitles for captions only, NSFW)

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)

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.