The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Eizo Sugawa, 1959)

“He’s not a beast. No, he’s a robot. A machine created by a modern, twisted society” according to a frustrated policeman acknowledging that a sociopathic killer is going to get away with his crimes because when it comes right down to it he’s just that good. Eizo Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi) is the first of several adaptations of the hardboiled novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, Sugawa would himself direct a “sequel” 15 years later while a better-known version would prove a hit for Toru Murakawa in 1980 with action star Yusaku Matsuda in the leading role, and a two-part V-cinema adaptation would follow in 1997. The 1959 edition however is very much an expression of the anxiety of its times, a slightly reactionary take on the post-Sun Tribe phenomenon hinting at a generational divide between the nihilistic, hyper individualist post-war generation and their confused though morally compromised forbears. 

As the film opens, three policemen meet in a pub one of whom proudly shows off a Robby the Robot toy he’s picked up for his young son and is intending to give him on returning home from work. Sadly, however, Okada (Akira Sera) will never make it home because, for largely unexplained reasons, he is shot dead by nihilistic American literature student Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bundles the body into the boot of a car which he then simply abandons. Date never reveals much of a motive for this first murder, but he does later use Okada’s warrant card and service weapon to facilitate later crimes. 

The problem, at least for earnest policemen Kawashima (Eijiro Tono), a veteran cop and father of seven, and idealistic rookie Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is engaged to barmaid Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa) but drags his feet over the marriage because of his precarious life as a law enforcement officer, is an ideological divide within the contemporary police force. “Investigations are about science. And science is the best” according to their boss, reflecting a new faith in forensics prioritising physical evidence from the crime scene over a policeman’s intuition. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the right call though Kawashima and Masugi appear to find it both restrictive and mildly insulting as if their experience on the job now counts for nothing. They also worry that such rigid thinking prevents thorough investigation, and they might have a point in the boss’ continued insistence that the crimes must be down to “gang activity” even though the evidence clearly points at someone connected to the university or perhaps a disgruntled salaryman with access to the uni gun club. 

Kawashima and Masugi lament that they feel powerless to act because they don’t have the right to arrest someone on the basis of a “hunch”, and the film seems to agree with them as Date continues to commit his crimes unbothered by law enforcement though really who wants to live in such an authoritarian society that the police can haul you in solely because they think there’s something odd about you and “feel” you must be guilty of a crime even in the absence of conclusive evidence? Nevertheless it’s precisely these ideological divides that Date wilfully exploits while planning his hits, his second targets also reflecting the continuing Sinophobia of post-war cinema in impersonating a police officer to rob, but interestingly not kill, a pair of Chinese gangsters running an illegal gambling racket. 

Hearing Date’s back story, we realise that society has in a sense warped him in witnessing an injustice done to his father which later led to his suicide while his mother was apparently engaging in an affair with the man who framed him. He strongly argues that the only response to the “chaos, madness, and contradictions” of the modern society is to “show our beastly nature”, wilfully abandon humanistic morality and conventional civility in favour of an individualistic satisfaction of one’s personal desires above all other concerns. Date is certainly an amoral man who has no problem with sacrificing those he determines to be lesser beings for his own gain, but as even Masugi reveals his thinking may not be out of line with that of his generation. Many people are driven to murderous rage, he argues, but do not act on it because of a social taboo. 

As the film opens, a group of left-wing students is holding a rally in support of the anti-ANPO protests ahead of the treaty’s imminent renewal, though the professors mock them from inside insisting that their politics is not genuine only a reflection of the despair they feel in their society knowing that even if they graduate all that awaits them are low-level salaryman jobs with little promise of advancement. Those who can’t even manage that, they joke, turn to academia. Date’s professor (Nobuo Nakamura) affects sympathy with his poverty but also wilfully exploits him, getting him to do translations of novels which will later be published under his own name while it seems to be an open secret that he owes much of his success to the fact that he married into a prominent family which allowed him to spend five years studying abroad in America. 

Meanwhile, his students philosophise on the psychology of crime insisting that a “robotic, truly ruthless personality” can only come from a “mechanistic society like the US” while Japanese criminals are generally “emotional” in that crimes are committed because of “love affairs, resentment, finances”, “petty humanistic motives” which society can easily understand if not exactly condone. Date, admittedly a student of American literature with his eyes firmly set on going abroad, entirely disproves this theory. His crimes appear to be dispassionate and committed largely for practical reasons, the later ones at least with money as the motive even if he also derives a thrill from his amoral rebellion against the system. His poverty is offered as a justification yet we also see him abuse and manipulate those weaker than himself, humiliating an old lady trying to sell flowers in the bar where Yoko works while later talking a fellow student suffering with TB and unable to pay his tuition into helping him commit a robbery. 

Perhaps in someways uncomfortably in continuing a motif associating homosexuality with sadistic criminality, it’s also heavily implied that Date is bisexual, encountering an effeminate young man on the street with whom it is clear from their conversation he has previously been intimate to later use him as cannon fodder when engaging in a firefight with Chinese gangsters, while there is also an obvious homoerotic charge to his relationship to the student who later becomes a temporary accomplice. His relations with women are somewhat caddish and perfunctory, his sometime girlfriend Tae (Reiko Dan) telling the police that Date is a player who only sleeps with the same woman three times before becoming bored with her. Date’s attitude, though interestingly enough not his crimes, may reflect a societal misogyny, impoverished medical student Tae later refused access to the morgue because it’s not something a woman should see, though Tae herself later claims that it’s Date’s coldness and cruelty that draw her to him. Seemingly unable to feel genuine emotion for others, it nevertheless appears that Date is in a sense moved enough by Tae’s ability to embrace his inner darkness to eventually decide to alleviate her poverty on realising he no longer needs his ill-gotten gains because he’s secured his passage to America through more legitimate means. 

A reaction to the post-Sun Tribe sense of moral panic about disillusioned post-war youth, The Beast Shall Die suggests that for the moment at least those like Date are in an unassailable position thanks to an overly liberal justice system as the two policemen lament their inability to prevent his escape through judicial means while turning their attention to Tae though there’s no real way they can know that Date gave the stolen money to her rather than taking it with him or depositing it in some other location even if she’s walking around with an ugly handbag that might be full of cash. Alternating between an acceptance of Date’s nihilistic, crypto-fascist philosophy in implying that those who obey the rules of civility are doing so solely because they are too weak to break them, and advocating for a more authoritarian society in which policemen are free to act on their “hunches”, Sugawa’s take on Oyabu’s hard boiled tale of societal corruption and warped post-war morality has its reactionary qualities even as it ends on a note of ambiguity that implies order will eventually triumph though not, it seems, today. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Jun Fukuda, 1960)

The-Secret-of-the-Telegian-images-df0ac23f-302b-4e88-8ec7-5423f55f51cPlaced between The H-Man and the Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Denso Ningen) is another in Toho’s series of “mutant” movies in which “enhanced” humans find themselves turning monstrous because of ill-advised scientific endeavours. Like many in the series, Telegian has an ambivalent attitude towards scientific research, both proud and fearful. This might be 1960, but the roots of the threat once again stem back to wartime crimes and the impossibility of trust as a man long thought dead teleports himself out of his fictitious grave to wreak a terrifying and bloody revenge on those who have wronged him.

People running screaming out of the “Cave of Horrors” might not be such an unusual sight but this time it’s not papier-mâché ghosts or fancy tricks which have produced such a reaction but a real life bloody murder. The dead man, Tsukamoto, has the end of a bayonet in his chest and a cryptic letter in his pocket asking him to come to this very spot in order to learn “the truth about what happened 14 years ago”. The police are baffled, as is science journalist Kirioka (Koji Tsuruta) who is excited to discover a strange wire at the crime scene. Eventually, the trail leads to a nationalistic, military themed cabaret bar run by former lieutenant Onishi (Seizaburo Kawazu).

The bar is more or less a front for Onishi’s smuggling operation but what has him worried is that a former associate, Taki (Sachio Sakai), may think that he and another former solider, Takahashi, may have reclaimed some stolen gold and declined to share the proceeds. Onishi, Takahashi, and Taki have all received ominous gold discs which seems to point back to their failed bid to pocket some of the Emperor’s gold during the last days of the war. Charged with looking after a top scientist working on teleportation technology, Onishi decided he’d rather have the cash instead stooping so low as to kill both the researcher, Nikki (Takamaru Sasaki), and one of his subordinates who tried to stop him – Tsudo (Tadao Nakamaru). The gang were interrupted stealing the gold but went back a year later only to find the bodies and the treasure vanished without a trace.

Tsudo, now living under an alias, is hellbent on revenge not only against the men who left him for dead but indirectly against their entrenched treacheries as betrayers of their duty, country, and morality. Unlike the the villain of The Invisible Man Vs Human Fly, Tsudo is not among those who feel themselves betrayed or abandoned by their country, left out in the cold in the new post-war world, but one who has a deep seated need to make those who’ve wronged him pay for their treachery. Onishi’s strange militarism themed bar only adds insult to injury given his extremely unpatriotic conduct, though it is perhaps in keeping with the traditionally opportunist nature of nationalists throughout history.

Despite the familiar setup, the science takes a back seat as Fukuda pushes the procedural over the sci-fi and so it remains unclear to what extent, if any, the presence of the teleportation equipment is responsible for Tsudo’s strange behaviour. The teleporting Tsudo is, it has to be said, an odd man. Turning up to complain about late deliveries of the refrigeration equipment he needs for the special metals involved in the experiments,  Tsudo’s manner is creepy in the extreme, robotic yet somehow malevolent. Predictably he develops a fondness for the saleswoman, Akiko (Yumi Shirakawa), who coincidentally lives near to the first murder victim and also becomes the love interest of intrepid reporter Kirioka.

Fukuda keeps things simple over all, stopping to pay an extensive homage to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, though there’s a wry sense of humour at play in the bizarre fairground beginning and odd production elements such as the incongruous club and its dancing girls who are, ironically enough, entirely painted in gold. Eiji Tsuburaya’s involvement is largely limited to the transportation effect which is extremely impressive in its execution and has an appropriately unsettling feeling. Not quite as coherent as other examples of its genre, The Secret of the Telegian has a slight tonal oddity in its almost nationalistic discussion of false nationalism, literally taking aim at those who preach patriotism yet cynically betray their country, robbing it not just literally but spiritually. Even so, Fukuda’s take on the mutant formula has enough tongue in cheek humour and sci-fi inflected drama to keep most genre fans happy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)