Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Teruo Ishii, 1958)

Teruo Ishii may be most closely associated with his exploitation work for Toei in the late ‘60s and ‘70s but in actuality he began his career at Toho, later joining Shintoho where he served as an AD to among others Mikio Naruse whom he regarded as a lifelong mentor. After making his debut with boxing movie King of the Ring: The World of Glory in 1957, he worked mainly in children’s sci-fi tokusatsu serials before sliding into B-movie noir of which 1958’s Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Nyotai sanbashi) is an early example. 

Set firmly in the contemporary era, Ishii opens with a documentary-style voiceover exoticising the seedy underbelly of the city’s entertainment district hidden away in otherwise sparkling Ginza. Shooting in a bold reportage style, he captures a sense of natural spontaneity reminiscent of early American independent cinema transitioning directly into nightclub Arizona where a woman is furiously dancing. Arizona is as we’ll see the nexus of the recent proliferation of “call girl” businesses which have arisen since sex work was criminalised and in this case at least dependent on an international sex trafficking network backed by an American gangster, Thompson (Harold Conway). Salaryman Keizo (Ken Utsui) is a new customer, double checking that the business is “safe” before being reassured that they don’t deal with anyone they don’t know and have already vetted his identity, but when he reaches the hotel room he’s been handed the key for, he discovers the body of a woman lying in the bathtub and is forced on the run. The twist is that Keizo isn’t a bored executive after all but an undercover policeman working on breaking the trafficking ring. 

Co-scripted by Akira Sagawa, Flesh Pier seems to draw frequent inspiration from Casablanca only with the roles slightly reversed as replacement hostess Rumi (Yoko Mihara) finds herself wondering why of all the gin joints in Ginza Keizo had to walk into hers while the bar’s musician, Teruo (Teruo Hata), quite clearly in love with her himself, completes the triangular relationship. The couple even enter a Moroccan-style room while echoing Rick and Ilsa’s painful rehash of their Paris break up as Rumi tries and fails to explain why she left him on some previous occasion, Keizo remembering that she wore a white sweater and a blue coat to mimic Rick’s “the Germans wore grey, you wore blue” while the film’s ending is also hugely reminiscent of Casablanca’s “beginning of a wonderful friendship” only with additional romance. 

Nevertheless, the crime here is bigger and darker than most contemporary noir with awkward echoes of Japan’s prewar sex trafficking industry embodied by the karayuki as it becomes clear the gang’s business model relies on finding young women and luring them abroad with promises of good jobs only to force them into them sex work. Meanwhile one of the regular policemen, Hayami (Hiroshi Asami), gets a shock when he sets up a meeting with one of the call girls and is met by his own fiancée who, unbeknownst to him, has resorted to sex work in order to fund her brother’s tuition. “What else could I do?” she tearfully asks him making plain that in the difficult if improving economic environment of late 50s Japan sex work is still the only viable option for many women needing to support their families in the absence of men given persistent societal sexism which often locks them out of other kinds of well-paying jobs. Hayami perhaps understands this, drowning his sorrows with his veteran partner insisting that he’s sick of being a policeman and plans to quit only for the older man to sympathetically tell him not to give up so easily. 

Then again, Keizo’s secondary love interest Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi) is an intrepid undercover reporter posing as a model in order to bait the trafficking ring. Even so the primary drama revolves around Keizo and Rumi’s unfinished business along with her musician’s jealousy, the implication being more that her feelings for Keizo have clouded her judgement rather than reawakened a sense of moral goodness. Like many femme-fatales in post-war B-movie noir she is made to pay the ultimate price for her transgressive femininity in having firstly climbed the in-gang ladder and then damned herself in her conflicted love for the earnest Keizo even while suspecting he may be an undercover cop despite his acting like an underworld thug. These are indeed a new breed gangster much more like those seen in European and American noir rather than traditional yakuza while the environment of the Arizona is also something of a liminal space as the opening voiceover puts it in but not of Japan. 

While nowhere near as lurid as some of Ishii’s later work, Flesh Pier is certainly daring for the time period in the griminess with which it depicts the successor to the red light districts along with its air of forbidden allure even while its club scenes are in keeping with those found in other contemporary gangster tales if lent a little more realism in the immediacy with which Ishii shoots them making full use of documentary-style handheld. Expressing a degree of anxiety as regards Japan’s increasingly global outlook along with that of increasing social change, Flesh Pier is formally daring from the young Ishii artfully playing with classic noir while fully embracing the transgressive thrills of B-movie crime. 


The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

“Fear the hatred of the dead!” a blameless slain wife exclaims after being cruelly cut down by her deluded husband in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of karmic vengeance, The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi). Then again, though cleaving close to the standard formulas of the ghost movie not to mention the famous tale, these fatalistic, generationally twinned tales of ghostly revenge have an oddly imprecise quality in which it is the innocent who are eventually made to suffer, caught between concentric circles of guilt and retribution. 

The tale opens in 1773 with a blind masseur/money lender, Soetsu (Yoji Misaki), leaving his home on a snowy day hoping to catch venal samurai Shinzaemon (Akira Nakamura) at home. Shinzaemon and his wife are hospitable, but a conflict soon breaks out during which Shinzaemon accuses the old man of disrespecting him as a samurai and generally getting above himself as a mere member of the peasant class. All Soetsu has done is politely ask for the money he’s owed while making it clear that Shinzaemon’s attempts to give him the run around are wearing thin, but he ends up with a nasty gash on his face after the enraged samurai throws a pot at him. Driven into a frenzy by this unwelcome class-based anxiety, Shinzaemon slashes Soetsu with his sword and kills him, instructing a servant to stuff his body in a case and dump it in Kasane swamp. Soetsu, however, does not rest easy, returning to taunt him, eventually causing him to murder his wife by mistake and thereafter drawing him to his death by drowning in the very swamp where he dumped the body. 

20 years later in Edo, Soetsu’s daughter Rui (Katsuko Wakasugi) has become a successful shamisen teacher, while Shinkichi (Takashi Wada), the orphaned son of Shinzaemon, was taken in by a merchant family who continue to treat him as a poor relation. While having internalised a servant mentality that ironically inverts his father’s anxiety in his samurai status, Shinkichi has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa), who is about to be betrothed against her will to the horrible son of local merchants, Seitaro (Shuji Kawabe). Rui, meanwhile, an older unmarried woman, is desperate to fend off the violent attentions of rough ronin Omura (Tetsuro Tanba), eventually convincing herself she is in love with the mild-mannered Shinkichi who might well think a rebound relationship is a good idea if it clears the way for Hisa’s inevitable marriage. 

Oddly enough and somewhat incomprehensibly, it’s Rui who becomes the target of her father’s curse, perhaps for her unwitting affection for the son of the man who killed him though it seems insufferably cruel that a father would involve his own child, not to mention the blameless infant of his murderer, in his bid for vengeance from beyond the grave. For his part, Shinkichi pays a heavy price for his unmanly diffidence, brave enough neither to say no to Rui or to run away with Hisa, simply passive if kind in the face of mounting impossibilities. Yet as much as it’s her father’s resentment that causes her downfall, struck by the pluck from the shamisen which scars her face to mirror his, she adds her own share in the wrath of a woman scorned dragging Shinkichi towards the lake for his inability to let go of his love for Hisa.

Old Soetsu might have a right to be vengeful, but his curse has collateral damage, enacted on women in order to target men as in Shinzaemon’s unwitting murder of his wife and Shinkichi’s accidental violence against Hisa at the instigation of Rui. Only the two old servants are left behind to make peace and tell the story, united by their respective positions rather than divided by their conflicting affiliations. Studio-bound yet filled with a series of supernatural tricks, Nakagawa’s atmospheric adaptation of the classic tale once again features the bug-eyed deformity of the scorned female ghost as Rui’s initial injury eventually balloons as her “sickness” intensifies, later finding time to turn her rage on Omura who was not, it has to be said, on the original list of victims being simply an embodiment of the cruelty of the age. Nakagawa ends, however, not with darkness but with light, freeing the souls of the troubled lovers from the gloom of earthly torment in urging them to leave their hatred behind and return to Buddha in eternal peace. 


A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

The term “dokufu” or “poisonous woman” dates back to the Edo era, but rose to prominence once again in the turbulent society of late Meiji in which such women became fodder for the growing penny dreadful industry. Unlike the later “bad girl” or contemporary examples of “bad women” from elsewhere, the problem with “poisonous women” is that they pollute society as a whole, corrupting those around them through their unbridled transgressions. These notions are of course as much about contemporary notions of femininity and a desire to preserve the social order at all costs as they are about conventional morality and the rule of law, but there are reasons that tales of such independent women incited such a frenzy among both men and women who found themselves floundering in a confusing and rapidly changing society.

Nobuo Nakagawa’s A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Dokufu Takahashi Oden) is inspired by the real life tale one particular “dokufu”, Oden Takahashi, who was in fact the last woman to be beheaded in Japan after being convicted of murdering her lover while suspected of poisoning her husband. Nakagawa does not particularly pay attention to the “real” details of her life but to her pulp persona, somewhat reclaiming her image as an ultra cool revenger who refused to be bound by the restrictive mores of her times or suffer at the hands of the feckless men she nevertheless falls victim to. 

When we first meet Oden (Katsuko Wakasugi), she is being pursued by a large number of policemen whom she manages to outrun, eventually tricking them and escaping by getting a lift from a passing rickshaw driver. The ride is tense, and we worry that Oden will encounter an accident that will bring her to the attention of the police, but the crisis is something quite different. In a staggering coincidence, the rickshaw driver is none other than Oden’s estranged first husband, Jinjuro (Akira Nakamura), once a samurai but now reduced to pulling a cab after ruining himself through drink and debauchery (apparently why Oden eventually left him). Though it’s not exactly a happy reunion, the pair part on good terms while he laments that their small daughter Omitsu still misses her mother, managing to extract a few notes from Oden supposedly for her upkeep.  

Oden meanwhile goes home to husband no. 2, Ryosuke (Asao Matsumoto), who is bedridden with TB and increasingly paranoid about what Oden does outside the house to keep them fed. Operating out of a remote cottage, she puts on a ridiculously elaborate Western outfit and heads to a jewellers where she pretends to look at precious stones for a ring, dropping one on the floor while the salesman’s back is turned and spiking it with the point of her parasol knowing that no-one is going to think of looking there. The assistants aren’t stupid, they know a stone is missing and Oden must have pocketed it but all they can do is search her person, calling in the local bobby, Kazuma. (Juzaburo Akechi), who thinks they may be going too far in forcing this upperclass lady to strip off to prove she’s not a thief. The owner of the store, Osawa (Tetsuro Tanba), looks on knowingly but is intrigued more than anything else, eventually content to let Oden go despite knowing she has the jewel concealed somewhere about her person. 

Disaster strikes, however, when Oden runs into Kazuma in the street and he spots her parasol sparkling. He tries to arrest her, but she pleads with him to let her change out of her extremely silly outfit first, playing the poor widow card and eventually seducing the naive policeman. What Oden didn’t quite bank on was actually falling for him for real, drawn in a sense to order and goodness, longing to be caught and restored to the rightful condition of womanliness but fearing she has lost all right to conventional happiness. 

Oden’s relationship with Kazuma is an example of the effects of her “poison” on society at large. Kazuma as we first meet him is earnest and good, a naive young rookie with a strong sense of justice who leaps to defend Oden thinking she is a maligned noble woman unfairly accused of thievery. His superior Kakunosuke (Gen Funabashi), has set him up with his innocent little sister Kozue (Minako Yamada) and it seems the pair will soon marry, but Kazuma is apparently not so much interested in sweetness as he is in Oden’s complicated darkness. He falls obsessively in love with her, perhaps partly out of a desire to save her from her criminal life by bringing her to justice, but also in attraction to all of her transgressive qualities which contradict everything he stands for. 

Nakagawa reframes Oden’s poisonousness as a consequence of her frustrated maternity and a continual failure of masculinity. After re-encountering Jinjuro, Oden finds it increasingly difficult to justify the act of abandoning her child and leaving her with a man she knew to be a violent and feckless drunk. Though Jinjuro appears to have reformed himself through the time-honoured devices of humbleness and hard work, we later find him extorting money from Oden to pay for Omitsu’s medical care only to drink it all himself. Oden tries to visit her daughter, but is after all a stranger in her life. Her attempt to reclaim her maternity, escape the trap of criminality and leave the city with her little girl is the primary motivator for all of her subsequent actions which culminate in an intense desire for revenge against Jinjuro, the architect of all her misfortune. 

All of Oden’s earlier crimes were in some way permissible, taking from those who could afford to lose and doing it with a degree of style. The botched job at the jewellers, however, sees her fall into the hands of Osawa, who turns out to be a violent and sadistic gang boss. Osawa keeps women captive in his basement and whips them for his own enjoyment, forcing Oden to become a procurer tricking vulnerable women into becoming sex slaves. Oden thinks nothing of this, smirking that there must be good money in selling women, willingly complicit in the oppression of those just like her. To free herself from Osawa, she uses Jinjuro, attempting to kill two birds with one stone and finding partial success only for the plan to fall apart when confronted by the face of order in the reappearance of a ruined Kazuma. 

Oden ends her journey in Yokohama, a bustling international port, where she’s the tattooed madame of the Osawa’s Chinese bar and a familiar face at the gaming tables. The suggestion is that this corruption is foreign in origin, Osawa’s top hat and smart suit not to mention plush Western-style bed, suggesting that his savagery is a facet of his seduction by Chinese hedonism and Western individualism. Individualism is again painted as Oden’s sin when she leaves the women locked in a jail cell to escape a fire while cradling her ill-gotten gains, only to tell Kazuma to man up and that money is what she truly loves. But Oden is also victim of her times, betrayed by a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal system. Jinjuro the drunken samurai, Ryonosuke the impotent consumptive, and Kazuma the conflicted young man. The last of these she refuses to “ruin”, setting him free because she truly loves him and does not want to see him dragged into her life of crime, intent on reclaiming her goodness by reassuming the role of a conventional mother living an honest life with her daughter somewhere far away. Her “wickedness” is only really her desire to survive but an independent woman, good or bad, is always a threat to the social order and so she must be stopped lest her inconvenient desire to live a life free of male control become a “poisonous” example to those around her.