A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Kinji Fukasaku, 1988)

Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for his work in the yakuza genre and most particularly the Battles Without Honour cycles which chronicled the darkness beneath Japan’s progress towards the economic miracle of the post-war era. He was, however, much more varied in output than it might at first seem. Set before the war, A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Hana no Ran) positions the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as the day innocence died, Taisho-era liberalism crushed in a fundamental collapse of the old world which led only to the intensification of militaristic ideology and the subsequent corruption of Japanese imperialism. 

Our guide is legendary poet Akiko Yosano (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who tells the story of pre-war 20th century Japan by recounting her own which begins in 1901 when she fell in love with fellow poet and later husband, Tekkan (Hiroshi) Yosano (Ken Ogata). The situation is complicated firstly because Hiroshi is already married with an infant daughter, and secondly because Akiko’s friend Tomiko (Yoshiko Nakada), another poet who had worked with her on a feminist journal, was also in love with Hiroshi and perhaps her rival. Akiko tricks Hiroshi into seeing him alone on the pretext that Tomiko is coming too, confessing her feelings and discovering that he plans to divorce his wife because she is unsupportive of his work. Full in the knowledge that he is choosing poetry over his daughter, Hiroshi decides to enter a relationship with Akiko because she, as a fellow poet, is more appreciative though it proves harder than expected to separate from his first wife. In any case, Akiko is left with a sense of guilt which continues throughout her married life that she cheated Tomiko to claim Hiroshi. 

During this time, Akiko Yosano becomes one of the most celebrated yet controversial young poets in Japan well known for her explicit, erotic love poetry much of which was inspired by her husband. She has eclipsed him as an artist and is supporting the family while he has fallen into a deep depression. A mother of 13 children, Akiko has begun to feel lonely in her marriage and wonders if someone who has only known one man has the authority to continue writing tracts about love and sex. Meanwhile, thanks to the admiration her poetry has received among the young radicals, she has become an accidental figurehead for the Taisho radicals and finds herself swept up by the movement through her associations with such avant-garde figures as Sakae Osugi (Morio Kazama) and his wife Noe Ito (Eri Ishida), the actress Sumako Matsui (Keiko Matsuzaka) held responsible for a revolution in Japanese theatre, and finally tragic author Takeo Arishima (Yusaku Matsuda) who was also the father of golden age actor Masayuki Mori. 

Arishima is first struck by Akiko when knocks her out of a rickshaw during an anarchist publicity stunt driving a motorcycle and sidecar around outside the theatre where Sumako Matsui is performing one of her most famous roles in a play inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It turns out that Akiko bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, which is one reason he sends her an extravagant gift of a beautiful Western-style outfit which she first tries to return partly because she only wears kimono and partly because it’s an inappropriately expensive gesture. Arishima is from a wealthy, landed family and like many of his generation uncomfortable with his privilege but struggling to convince himself to abandon it. Drawn to him in the same way she was drawn to Hiroshi, Akiko accepts the dress and later wears it on a picnic she organises where her children and Arisihma’s two sons can play together. The Western clothing becomes a kind of signifier of Akiko’s drive towards the future and away from her husband as she too despite her feminist perspective struggles to free herself of the image of the good wife while inwardly burning with a desire for love and passion which her husband can no longer satisfy. 

That same dilemma is one which plagues her rival, journalist Akiko Hatano (Kimiko Ikegami) who is already involved with Arishima but married to a patriarchal man who sees her as nothing more than a “doll”, something which is supposed to look pretty and live in its box until he chooses to take it out. Akiko Hatano warns Akiko Yosano that Arishima is a man drawn to death and is merely looking for someone to die with in a lovers’ suicide, something of a fad at the time. In meeting Akiko Yosano, however, his desire for life seems to have been reinvigorated. He makes peace with himself by dissolving his estate in Hokkaido and surrendering control of it to a peasants’ committee, but is thrown again into suicidal despair when the secret police turn up to harass the peasants for undermining the social order. 

As Akiko Hatano puts it, Arishima is a man vacillating between life and death, claiming to be in love with Akiko Yosano soon after meeting her and actively rejecting Akiko Hatano as symbolic of his newfound desire to live. Arishima committed a love suicide with Akiko Hatano on 9th June, 1923 which is only a few months before the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the city of Tokyo and enabled a roundup of subversive forces such as socialists and anarchists along with Koreans many of whom were massacred by state sanctioned forces after a false rumour circulated that they had been poisoning the wells and preparing an insurrection for Korean independence (Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito along with their 6-year-old nephew were also victims of this pogrom). 

In her voice over, Akiko describes the earthquake as the death of Taisho which in real terms lasted a few more years until 1926, but was perhaps over as far as its liberalising ideals are concerned, the crisis giving the militarists further excuses to increase their powers. Yet like Arishima the Taisho intellectuals had also been obsessed with death and futility of which the love suicides were a part. Arishima, shortly before witnessing Sumako’s very public breakdown over the death of her lover Hogetsu Shimamura (Keizo Kanie) from Spanish Flu, describes her nothing more than a ham actress but also believes that the theatrical revolution of the Taisho era would not have been possible without her. Sumako also committed suicide for love a few months after Hogetsu’s death, unable to go on without him. Tomiko, Akiko’s old friend, contracted TB and painfully faded away with Hiroshi unexpectedly by her side. Catching sight of a couple of Osugi’s comrades being dragged away after the earthquake Akiko chases after them with rice balls, telling them they must survive. She’s watched many of her friends and the finest minds of her generation die, mostly through choice, and is making an active choice to live. 

In essence this choice may not be as positive as it first sounds. One of Japan’s first avowed pacifists, Akiko Yosano turned increasingly towards the right in the years following the earthquake, eventually becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the war in China and actively subverting the words of her previous poems in insisting it was glorious to die for the emperor after all. Her friends died out of a sense of futility, that the social changes they envisaged were not possible or that they were unable to continue living with themselves in such a society. Society changed, and Akiko changed with it, such was the path she found to continue living. Nevertheless, something did die with the earthquake and it was perhaps those youthful dreams of overwhelming romance crushed like Akiko’s hat in the rubble of a world which was already collapsing. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Kiju Yoshida, 1988)

Wuthering Heights poster“In this decadent age, who believes in the gods’ anger?” asks a cynical priest, willingly inviting evil into his home in the hope of brokering a change in his constraining circumstances. A key figure of the avant garde, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, like many of his contemporaries, struggled in the heavily commercialised cinema industry of the 1970s and beyond, finding the international arena more receptive to his arthouse concerns. 1988’s Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Arashi ga Oka), a distinctly Japanese take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, found funding in France where it perhaps neatly sits alongside superficially similar efforts from his similarly constrained contemporaries, but as always Yoshida’s vision is darker, more disturbing than that of the big budget epics which aimed to recapture golden age glories.

Yoshida swaps the desolate Yorkshire moors for a smokey hellscape settled in ash on the side of an unpredictable volcano. The Yamabes are a priestly family in charge of conducting various rituals to keep the serpent god happy, preventing an eruption and ensuring good rains. The house is spilt in two with a feud underway between the East mansion and the West. The East mansion is where we lay our scene as old Yamabe returns from an extended sojourn in the city, bringing back with him a feral child he found starving under a bridge and later names “Onimaru” (Yûsaku Matsuda) in honour of his “demonic” appearance.

“Demonic” maybe an unkind word to use about any child and primed to become a self-fulling prophecy, but as someone later puts it Onimaru “does not belong to this world”. He is “an evil man” whose “cruelty knows no limits”, yet two women are drawn into his orbit and find themselves unable to break free of his passionate intensity. His step-sister, Kinu (Yuko Tanaka), our Cathy stand-in, bonds with him in childhood feeling a kind of elemental connection perhaps forbidden to her as a woman of feudal Japan subject to the whims of male society. Yet she alone sees through him to humanity buried below, “your curse is the proof you will never stop loving me” she offers darkly while seducing him the night before her marriage to another man (Tatsuo Nadaka). Later that man’s sister (Eri Ishida), positioning herself as potential bride, cites the fact that he is “consumed by jealousy” as further proof that he is more man than demon, but Onimaru himself seems uncertain so deep is he in rage and resentment.

That resentment is perhaps as much about class as about anything else. A feral child, living like an animal on the streets of an unforgiving city, he’s an ill fit for the rarefied mansion of a local lord with a spiritual mission, albeit one which imprisons him in his home and forbids him from associating with the world below. Yamabe took him in for his “boldness”, actively seeking his demonic dynamism while his own son, Hidemaru (Nagare Hagiwara), remains disappointingly conservative and wedded to his old-fashioned elite entitlement. Hidemaru’s resentment of Onimaru is not so much born of parental rejection in his father’s abrupt decision to go out and find a more satisfactory son than the one dutifully waiting at home, but irritation in Onimaru’s irregular status. He resents that a mere “peasant”, a man who should be among the servants, is permitted to share his space, and it seems, has usurped his position in his father’s eyes to be groomed as an heir to the illustrious Yamabe name.

Hidemaru eventually leaves in disgust, setting off to make a conventionally successful life for himself in the city, latterly returning with a wife and son to claim his birthright only after his father’s death. Yet Hidemaru suffers too. His wife is raped and murdered by bandits, agents of chaos and yet a product of the system he was so keen to uphold, leaving him a drunken, dissolute figure unable to fulfil his obligations to the god of fire while Onimaru prospers in a violent world and is eventually gifted that which he most wanted – stewardship of the Yamabe clan.

Even so, he cannot fully possess Kinu who remains lost to him, ruined by her own internal conflict between individualism and obedience. After coming of age, her father tells her women of the Yamabe clan must leave the mountain to serve as priestesses in the shrine, but Kinu wants to “live as a true woman”. She cannot have Onimaru, but does not want to leave him so she engineers a marriage with the rival West mansion and the kindly Mitsuhiko who brands his house as one of light as opposed to the gloomy shadows of the East. Kinu has attempted to seize her own future, at least in part, but finds herself conflicted, torn between her affection for Mitsuhiko who is gentleness personified and her need for Onimaru’s brooding intensity.

Yet Yoshida’s Wuthering Heights is less a story of forbidden, transgressive loves than it is of elemental destruction, the anger of the gods manifested as imploded repression and its fiery aftermath. Yamabe, the father figure, brings “evil” into his home, infecting it with dark desire and deep resentments seemingly in the knowledge it will burn it to the ground. The third generation, orphaned and finally independent, are left to make what restitution they can and so the tale begins to reset and repeat with cousins, Hidemaru’s grown and now subjugated son Yoshimaru (Masato Furuoya), and Kinu’s fiesty daughter (Tomoko Takabe), returning their ire to the force of their oppression – Onimaru, still fearsome and implacable though ageing and maddened by his unanswerable love for a dead woman whose corpse he has begun to covet.

Kinu, on her deathbed, promised to drag Onimaru to hell (assuming they weren’t already there) if only to protect her new family and finally does just that as he finds himself expelled by the next generation, dragging a coffin off into the fiery distance. “In every way, our world is accursed” insists an exasperated retainer. Everything here is corrupt, rotten, suppurating under the weight of oppressive traditions which restrict freedom and insist on order at the price of humanity. Yoshida’s noh-inspired aesthetics add to the atmosphere of fable as his embattled protagonists attempt to reconcile their natures with their civility but find there is no answer for repressed desire other than destruction and eventual rebirth.


Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1979)

Execution Game BDA year on from The Killing Game, Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has returned to his old profession, now branded The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Shokei yugi). Like Killing, Execution is a variation on the themes of The Most Dangerous Game – conspiracy, betrayal, double cross, and corruption, but all in all Narumi’s world hasn’t changed very much even as he seems to become ever more dead to himself as he walks the dark city streets, trench coat, sunshades, and cigarettes blocking out its remaining light and warmth.

Unlike Dangerous or Killing, Execution opens indoors as Narumi lies half awake in an empty, dark and dirty room. Coming to, he remembers a girl and a car followed by a bump on the head but not much else. His attempt to escape lands him suspended from the ceiling in another room that’s shifted from green to red, but as he will shortly find out this is all part of a weird job interview. The shady guys who kidnapped him simply wanted to test his skills and, finding them adequate, now intend to force him to take their assignment to knock off their old hitman because he’s become too “weird” and they don’t need him around anymore. Narumi’s not too happy about any of this but then he does quite like getting paid. As usual, his first job leads to a second which has some wider implications involving international espionage.

Following his previous experiences, Narumi’s personal life seems to be less of a disaster but then that might be precisely because he has no personal life. In contrast to his increasingly detached persona, Execution marks the first time in the series in which he appears to enter into an entirely consensual relationship with a woman whom he genuinely seems to care about. Unfortunately she is not all she seems and, in a sense, betrays him. Nevertheless, even if the relationship is “fake” or at least part of an ongoing operation to trap Narumi into working for people he might otherwise avoid, it does provoke a kind of opening up as far as Narumi’s past is concerned. His seaside boyhood (perhaps why he chose the riverside town for his “retirement” in Killing) and longing for the ocean provide a clue to his restless heart as the sound of waves becomes a repeated cue signalling Narumi’s hidden emotional ebb and flow.

Yet externally he’s even more silent and closed off than before. Narumi’s hitman credentials have never been stronger and he pulls of his hits with steely precision. He is fearless in the face of danger, wading into the bloody finale with barely repressed fury, making sure none of these mass manipulators will survive their attempt to turn him into a disposable tool to be destroyed after use. Once again his second job provides him with a motive to get back in shape, making space for yet another training montage, but this time the mirrors are about more than vanity. Narumi’s world has always been dark, born of night and chaos, yet he remains the only point of order despite the illicit, dangerous, and immoral nature of his occupation. 

Narumi’s interaction with the young woman who runs the watch repair shop where he tries to get his pocket watched fixed is perhaps the best indicator of his progress over the series. The girl is first very taken with his watch which is rare and expensive, but is also later captivated by his cool exterior. She flirts with him, subtly, but Narumi deflects it. His demeanour towards her becomes paternal, finally he warns her against chasing every shady guy she meets – she doesn’t see the danger. This Narumi, in contrast to his rather pathetic existence in the first two films, is of the world but not in it. He sees himself as occupying a very different space than this young girl, and is resigned to walking a lonely road. The Execution Game is an apt way to describe his life story, yet even as something of him dies something else rises in his self imposed exile and desire for both self preservation and old fashioned nobility even within the bounds of his world weary cynicism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the killing gameFollowing the success of The Most Dangerous Game, the second in what was to become a trilogy arrived within the year and once again stars Matsuda as the ice cold hitman Narumi. Sunnier in outlook, The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Satsujin Jiken) unfolds along the same pattern as the first instalment as Narumi is dragged out of the shadows to intercede in a gang war only to find himself surplus to requirements.

Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has been retired from the killing game for the last five years and now lives a life of poverty and dissipation. Gone are his swanky apartment and stylish suits, now he lives in a bare hovel which is covered in dust and cobwebs, and he dresses like a farm boy in a white vest and jeans with a straw hat hanging on his back. He’s trying to lie low, but gets pulled into the kind of hostess bar he can’t really afford where he meets the first of two familiar faces which threaten to send him back into the middle of chaos. Akiko (Kaori Takeda), now a hostess at Bar Tako, is the daughter of the chairman Narumi bumped off in his last job before retiring but far from bearing a grudge against him, Akiko is grateful to have been set free. The second familiar face belongs to the same chairman’s former secretary/mistress, Misako (Yutaka Nakajima), who is now a mama-san at a bar popular with the local goons. All those years ago Narumi let Misako go in a moment of weakness and now regrets it but attempting to “reconnect” is going to land him right back in the thick of things.

Murakawa begins with a prologue which takes place in the noirish urban darkness of The Most Dangerous Game, but shoots in dreamy soft focus to emphasise that this is all memory before jumping forward five years. Exactly why Narumi has decided to give up a career in assassination is not revealed, nor is what he’s been doing the last five years, but he has apparently got himself an annoying sidekick who, in contrast to Narumi’s intense reserve, does not shut up. The first half of the movie is Narumi and his buddy trying to get by as outlaws including one humorous skit where they get themselves a van with a nudie pinup on the front plus a loudspeaker to humiliate debtors into paying up.

Things take a darker turn when Narumi runs into Misako – a chance meeting that seems almost like fate. Gradually the old Narumi begins to reappear. Deciding to pay Misako a visit he runs into her new man, gang boss Katsuda (Kei Sato), who figures out who he is and wants him to bump off another old gang boss. Narumi needs to get back in shape which he does via the tried and tested method of a training montage, lifting weights and running through the town with his trademark perm returning to its stylish buoyancy. This time around Narumi has buddy to help out, even if he only ends up being a liability, but the same strange dichotomy occurs – he may be an ace hitman, but Narumi is a mess without a gun in his hand.

Perhaps weathered by his experiences, Narumi is also much less cocky and much more unwilling to take a chance on trust. Once again he is betrayed by clients who’d rather not pay up and forced to play a “dangerous game” to bring the whole saga to a close in such a way as to keep both his life and the money. Rather than the surprising and largely inexplicable devotion of Dangerous’ Kyoko, Narumi finds himself torn between two women – the youthful Akiko who is grateful to Narumi for releasing her from an overbearing father, and the jaded Misako whose feelings for Narumi are complex, mingling fear, gratitude, attraction, and resentment into an irresistible storm of ambivalence. Again Narumi’s cool, animalistic aggression seems to be the key to his mysterious sex appeal but this time around there are no flickers of response as there were for the devoted Kyoko, these “relationships” are opportunistic and transactional.

Ironically titled, The Killing Game makes plain that Narumi will never be able to escape his chosen profession even if he wanted to. Without a gun in his hand Narumi is a pathetic wastrel, playing around at tuppenny schemes with his rather dim but talkative friend, and trying to play the big shot by buying out a hostess bar he is entirely unable to afford despite his recent windfall. The setting may be brighter, but Narumi’s word is still a nihilistic one in which he’s conditioned to expect betrayal and the only remaining vestiges of his humanity are his strange friendship with his bumbling sidekick and his ongoing fecklessness at coping with everyday life. Matsuda is as cool as ever in his effortless ability to cope with any given situation and kill with ruthless efficiency, but as Narumi edges ever closer to machine it is clear there is only one way to beat The Killing Game.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the most dangerousThe late Yusaku Matsuda remains an ultra cool pop culture icon thirty years after his death and forty after his reign as the action king of Japanese cinema. Though there were several other contenders for the crown – Sonny Chiba, or the tough guy yakuza stars Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, to name but a few, it’s Matsuda’s intense screen presence which continues to endure as an example of mid-1970s extreme masculinity. This image was in large part created through his work with director Toru Murakawa in roles inspired by hardboiled novelist Haruhiko Oyabu in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf and The Beast Must Die, but before that it was the “Game” trilogy which helped to make his name.

The first of these, The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Mottomo Kikenna Yuugi), introduces us to Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) – a sleazy hitman with a gambling problem who is capable of pulling off the most daring and precise of hits but remains a disaster outside of his working life. After losing a mahjong game and getting roughed up by gangsters, Narumi gets a job offer from an arms company currently vying for a large government contract to develop a Star Wars-style air defence system. As reported in the news, a number of top CEOs are being kidnapped for ransom thanks to a plot by the Godai Conglomerate. The Tonichi Corporation want Narumi to rescue their kidnapped employee, Nanjo (Masanori Irie), who also happens to be the son-in-law of CEO Kohinata (Asao Uchida).

Unlike the later Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, the corporate conspiracy and shady government military project are merely background and never really dealt with in any further detail. Nevertheless, it appears Narumi has got himself involved in a much darker world than even he is used to. Kohinata claimed to want to save Nanjo because of their familial connection, but as it turns out he doesn’t really care so much about his daughter’s husband as he does about wiping out the Godai and getting the lucrative government contract all to himself. He’s even willing to pay Narumi twice for doing the same job, but then perhaps he’s not really looking to pay at all. Conspiracy may extend further than just the corporate realm.

Narumi makes for a strange “hero”. His very 1970s bachelor pad is a monument to sleaze with its prominent topless pinups displayed like precious artwork in his living room and his well stocked personal bar – a strange thing to have when it’s clear he does not entertain many visitors. Dancing around with his gun and posing topless in front of the mirror Taxi Driver-style implies perhaps he’s not so confident with his chosen profession yet he’s clearly well known enough to get a phone call out of the blue from the Tonichi Corp. Despite his rather pathetic attitude at the mahjong game and equally pathetic exit after falling asleep during a lap dance at a sex parlour, Narumi’s professional exterior is one of infinite capability and powerful masculinity.

Yet, like many films of the era Narumi’s masculinity is also intensely misogynistic. Gangster’s moll Kyoko (Keiko Tasaka) becomes an unlikely (and inconvenient) love interest after Narumi tries to use her to bait her boyfriend. Lying in wait in Kyoko’s apartment, he surprises her coming out of the shower while she is half naked and vulnerable. She tries to escape, he stops her, phone’s the boyfriend, and begins raping her so that the gangsters can hear her distress over the phone. Kyoko stops struggling and apparently gets into the groove, falling instantly in love with Narumi’s awesome love making skills and following him back to his apartment where she stays for the rest of the film.

Nevertheless Matsuda is presented as the epitome of cool, unshaken by danger and always coming out on top with enough time to strike a pose as he takes down a target with automatic precision. Murakawa’s approach is of its time but leaning towards arthouse rather than Toei’s unusual brand of action cinema. Its vistas are noirish but filled with 70s paranoid claustrophobia while the hopeless, melancholy jazz score by Yuji Ohno adds to the moody hardboiled aesthetic. An exercise in style, The Most Dangerous Game is as cynical as they come but its wry commentary and occasional fits of gleeful comedy lift it above both the B-movie silliness of other contemporary action movies and the dour seriousness of later Matsuda/Murakawa collaborations.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Resurrection of Golden Wolf (蘇る金狼, Toru Murakawa, 1979)

resurrection-golden-wolfYou know how it is. You work hard, make sacrifices and expect the system to reward you with advancement. The system, however, has its biases and none of them are in your favour. Watching the less well equipped leapfrog ahead by virtue of their privileges, it’s difficult not to lose heart. Asakura (Yusaku Matsuda), the (anti) hero of Toru Murakawa’s Resurrection of Golden Wolf (蘇る金狼, Yomigaeru Kinro), has had about all he can take of the dead end accountancy job he’s supposedly lucky to have despite his high school level education (even if it is topped up with night school qualifications). Resentful at the way the odds are always stacked against him, Asakura decides to take his revenge but quickly finds himself becoming embroiled in a series of ongoing corporate scandals.

Orchestrating a perfectly planned robbery on his own firm in which Asakura deprives his employers of a large amount money, he’s feeling kind of smug only to realise that the bank had a backup plan. The serial numbers of all of the missing money have been recorded meaning he can’t risk spending any of it. Accordingly he decides the “safest” thing to do is exchange the problematic currency for the equivalent in heroine. His plan doesn’t stop there, however. He also knows the big wigs at the top are engaged in a high level embezzlement scam and seduces his boss’ mistress, Kyoko (Jun Fubuki), for the inside track. Asakura is not the only game in town as another detective, Sakurai (Sonny Chiba), is blackmailing some of the other bosses over their extra-marital activities. Playing both sides off against each other, Asakura thinks he has the upper hand but just as he thinks he’s got what he wanted, he discovers perhaps there was something else he wanted more and it won’t wait for him any longer.

Based on a novel by hardboiled author Haruhiko Oyabu, Resurrection of Golden Wolf is another action vehicle for Matsuda at the height of his stardom. Re-teaming with Murakawa with whom he’d worked on some of his most famous roles including The Most Dangerous Game series, Matsuda begins to look beyond the tough guy in this socially conscious noir in which an angry young man rails against the system intent on penning him in. A mastermind genius, Asakura is leading a double life as a mild mannered accountancy clerk by day and violent punk by night, but he has every right to be angry. If his early speech to a colleague is to be believed, Asakura worked hard to get this job. A high school graduate with night school accreditation, he’s done well for himself, but despite his friend’s assurance that Asaukura is ahead in the promotion stakes he knows there’s a ceiling for someone with his background no matter how hard he works or how bright he is.

Under the terrible wig and unfashionable glasses he adopts for his work persona, Asakura has a mass of unruly, rebellious hair and a steely gaze hellbent on revenge against the hierarchical class system. He is not a good guy. Asakura’s tactics range from fisticuffs with street punks to molesting bar hostesses, date rape, and getting his (almost) girlfriend hooked on drugs as a means of control, not to mention the original cold blooded murder of the courier he stole the company’s money from in the first place. The fact he emerges as “hero” at all is only down to his refusal to accept the status quo and by his constant ability to stay one step ahead of everyone else. When the system itself is this corrupt, Asakura’s punkish rebellion begins to look attractive despite the unpleasantness of his actions.

Adding in surreal sequences where Asakura dances around his lair-like apartment in a quasi-religious ritual with his silver mask, plus bizarre editing choices, eerie music and incongruous flamenco, Murakawa’s neo-noir world is an increasingly odd one, even if not quite on the level of his next film, The Beast Must Die. Very much of its time and remaining within the upscale exploitation world, Resurrection of Golden Wolf is necessarily misogynistic as its female cast become merely pawns exchanged between men to express their own status. The tone remains hopelessly nihilistic as Asakura nears his goal of the appearance of a stereotypically successful life with an executive job and possible marriage to the boss’ daughter only to find his conviction wavering. Hopelessly bleak, dark, and sleazy, Resurrection of Golden Wolf is, nevertheless, a supreme exercise in style marrying Matsuda’s iconic image with innovative direction which is hard to beat even whilst swimming in some very murky waters.


Again, many variations on the English title but I’ve gone with Resurrection of Golden Wolf as that’s the one that appears on Kadokawa’s release of the 4K remaster blu-ray (Japanese subs only).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Toru Murakawa, 1980)

LP Soundrack record cover

Yusaku Matsuda was the action icon of the ‘70s, well known for his counter cultural, rebellious performances as maverick detectives or unlucky criminals. By the early 1980s he was ready to shed his action star image for more challenging character roles as his performances for Yoshimitsu Morita in The Family Game and Sorekara or in Seijun Suzuki’s Kagero-za demonstrate. The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi, AKA Beast to Die) is among his earliest attempts to break out of the action movie cage and reunites him with director Toru Murakawa with whom he’d previously worked on Resurrection of the Golden Wolf also adapted from a novel by the author of The Beast Must Die, Haruhiko Oyabu. A strange and surreal experience which owes a large amount to the  “New Hollywood” movement of the previous decade, The Beast Must Die also represents a possible new direction for its all powerful producer, Haruki Kadokawa, in making space for smaller, art house inspired mainstream films.

Shedding 25 pounds and having four of his molars removed to play the role, Matsuda inhabits the figure of former war zone photo journalist Kazuhiro Date whose experiences have reduced him to state of living death. After getting into a fight with a policeman he seems to know, Date kills him, steals his gun, and heads to a local casino where he goes on a shooting rampage and takes off with the takings. Date, now working as a translator, does not seem to need or even want the money though if he had a particular grudge against the casino or the men who gather there the reasons are far from clear.

Remaining inscrutable, Date spends much of his time alone at home listening to classical music. Attending a concert, he runs into a woman he used to know who seems to have fond feelings for him, but Date is being pulled in another direction as his experiences in war zones have left him with a need for release through physical violence. Eventually meeting up with a similarly disaffected young man, Date plans an odd kind of revenge in robbing a local bank for, again, unclear motives, finally executing the last parts of himself clinging onto the world of order and humanity once and for all.

Throughout the film Date recites a kind of poem, almost a him to his demon of violence in which he speaks of loneliness and of a faith only in his own rage. Later, in one of his increasingly crazed speeches to his only disciple, Date recounts the first time he killed a man – no longer a mere observer in someone else’s war, now a transgressor himself taking a life to save his own. The violence begins to excite him, he claims to have “surpassed god” in his bloodlust, entering an ecstatic state which places him above mere mortals. A bullet, he says, stops time in that it alters a course of events which was fated to continue. A life ends, and with it all of that time which should have elapsed is dissolved in the ultimate act of theft and destruction. His acts of violence are “beautiful demonic moments” available only to those who have rejected the world of law.

Murakawa allows Matsuda to carry the film with a characteristically intense, near silent performance of a man driven mad by continued exposure to human cruelty. Hiding out in Date’s elegant apartment, Matsuda moves oddly, beast-like, his baseness contrasting perfectly with the classical music which momentarily calms his world. Mixing in stock footage of contemporary war zones, Murakawa makes plain the effect of this ongoing violence on Date’s psyche as the sound of helicopters and gunfire resounds within his own head. The imagery becomes increasingly surreal culminating in the moment of consecration for Date’s pupil in which he finally murders his girlfriend while she furiously performs flamenco during an dramatic thunderstorm. Date is, to borrow a phrase, no longer human, any last remnants of human feeling are extinguished in his decision to kill the only possibility of salvation during the bank robbery.

Anchored by Matsuda’s powerful presence, The Beast Must Die is a fascinating, if often incomprehensible, experience filled with surreal imagery and an ever present sense of dread. Its world is one of neo noir, the darkness and modern jazz score adding to a sense of alienation which contrasts with the brightness and elegance of the classical music world. At the end of his transformation, there is only one destination left to Date though his path there is a strange one. Fittingly enough for a tale which began with with darkness we exit through blinding white light.


There’s also another adaptation of this novel from 1959 starring Tatsuya Nakadai which I’d love to see but doesn’t seem to be available on DVD even without subtitles. This film has a selection of English language titles but I’ve used The Beast Must Die as this is the one which appears on Kadokawa’s 4K restoration blu-ray release (sadly Japanese subtitles ony).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Detective Story (探偵物語, Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)

Dective Story 1983Yusaku Matsuda became a household name and all round cool guy hero thanks to his role as a maverick private eye in the hit TV show Detective Story, however despite sharing the same name, Kichitaro Negishi’s Detective Story movie from 1983 (探偵物語, Tantei Monogatari) has absolutely nothing to with the identically titled drama series. In fact, Matsuda is not even the star attraction here as the film is clearly built around top idol of the day Hiroko Yakushimaru as it adapts a novel which is also published by the agency that represents her and even works some of her music into the soundtrack.

As far as plot goes, Detective Story is the kind of good natured, innocent crime thriller that has all but disappeared since the 1980s. Yakushimaru plays teenage student Naomi who is due to move to America to be with her father in the very near future. However, Naomi is an inquisitive, mildly rebellious sort with a habit of sneaking out of her room through the window despite the fact that no one is preventing her simply leaving through the front door. Consequently someone or other has hired a detective, Tsujiyama (Matsuda), to keep an eye on her. This he does pretty well until he puts a stop to Hiroko making a huge mistake with a fellow student in a love hotel. Though Naomi is very not happy about a creepy old guy following her about everywhere, she gradually gets used to it and when Tsujiyama’s ex-wife gets caught up in a hotel room murder case, Naomi gets the inspiration to embark on some detective work of her own.

Despite the shadiness of the world that rich girl Naomi is about to get embroiled in, the film maintains a bright and cheerful tone – perhaps because of Naomi’s own straightforward innocence. Even if she very nearly falls for the advances of an obvious creep (seriously, the guy actually borrows money from his “girlfriend” ? right in front of Naomi to take her out on a date, after which he tries to persuade her to join him in a love hotel), Naomi’s teenage spunkiness largely keeps her out of trouble for the rest of the movie which sees her getting mixed up with nightclubs, showgirls and yakuza. Somehow there is very little feeling of actual danger in the film leaving this all feeling like the kind of thing that happens to Naomi all the time and is simply just one last adventure before she heads off to America.

It must have been something of a coup to get arguably the biggest movie star of the day, Yusaku Matsuda, to play second fiddle in a mainstream teen idol movie especially as his other film choices of the time seem to indicate a desire to get away from his tough guy persona into more dramatic roles. Tsujiyama is cool presence in his stylish brown suit, smoking away in the shadows content to simply keep watch. He’s the omniscient type who always seem to have a plan in motion yet it’s Naomi herself who takes the lead here, solving the case whilst saving Tsuijiyama and his damaged show girl of an ex-wife in the process.

As is common with these kinds of stories there is a light romantic subplot which is a little unseemly when you consider Yakushimaru was only 19 at the time and her character around the same age whereas Matsuda was already in his 30s. This plot strand is played a little strangely throughout the film with a tacked on airport gate conclusion which dissolves itself almost straightway but does play into the film’s coming of age themes as Naomi develops greater sense of herself as an adult woman rather than a reckless teenager.

Detective Story is no lost classic, it’s very much of its time and has perhaps faded a little as has the fame of its tentpole star. That said it’s a perfectly enjoyable cute teen idol detective story which overall succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do even if it proves a little dull in the execution. An interesting watch for fans of its two stars Hiroko Yakushimaru and Yusaku Matsuda and even for its director Kichitaro Negishi who has gone on to win some later critical acclaim particularly with the prestige drama Villon’s Wife in 2009, Detective Story is perhaps not worth an all night stakeout but at least warrants a cursory investigation.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s a video of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the (very catchy) title song at a concert celebrating the 35th anniversay of her film debut (video has a bit about the concert at the beginning, fastfoward to 1:13 for the song only)

 

The Assassination of Ryoma (竜馬暗殺, Kazuo Kuroki, 1974)

Ryoma AnsatsuSakamoto Ryoma is a legendary revolutionary of Japan’s Bakumatsu period which encompasses the chaos that ensued after Japan was forced open after centuries of self imposed isolation. Ryoma was a low level samurai from a small town who resented the unjust treated of the arrogant true samurai above him and skipped out on his clan without the proper permission to go study sword fighting in the city. After the arrival of the Americans and witnessing their far superior technologies, Ryoma was one of several men who became convinced that Japan needed to modernise quickly or become a slave to more advanced cultures. However, this was a turbulent era and there was general infighting among all factions and all sides and Ryoma was mysteriously assassinated in 1867 along with his friend and ally Nakaoka Shintaro.

In thinking about the legacy of Sakamoto Ryoma, it’s important to try and separate the man from the legend. His legacy has become somewhat romanticised as his visionary ideas of a modernised Japan free of outside influence but also of outdated, feudalistic ideals have developed into an easily cop-opted set of talismans. Kuroki Kazuo’s 1974 film The Assassination of Ryoma (竜馬暗殺, Ryoma Ansatsu) attempts to place Ryoma firmly back within the mortal realm as it explores the events of his last days in late 1867 when he was brokering the new world from the shadows.

Played by Japan’s original ‘70s wild beast Harada Yoshio, this Ryoma is a slightly bumbling though thoughtful young man who likes to have a good time when he isn’t busy trying to overthrow the shogunate. An early scene sees him fiddling with a revolver which he claims is a better weapon to be in hiding with because it’s a little more portable and discreet than a traditional sword. However, he doesn’t quite know how to use it and can’t figure out how to make it fire in order to give his friend a demonstration. Later, having moved on slightly from his ideas of a peaceful revolution, his plan to buy a number of rifles backfires when he is sent a camera instead.

Ryoma is joined by two “allies” who both originally came in order to kill him but have apparently switched sides. The first is one of his oldest friends, Shintaro, who remained a member of a hard right revolutionary group in Ryoma’s home town which ran under the slogan “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners”. Understandably they haven’t taken too well to Ryoma’s change of heart regarding the modernisation of Japan and are committed to taking him out – hence dispatching Shintaro, though he proves reluctant to assassinate his friend. The other is a mysterious and largely silent assassin, Uta (played by Matsuda Yusaku), who also ends up forming an unlikely friendship with Ryoma which prevents him from carrying out his mission.

Kuroki shoots in black and white within a 4:3 frame and in gritty 16mm but also goes in handheld almost like newsreel footage shot by a frontline war correspondent. As well as using some silent cinema inspired compositional techniques, Kuroki also adds in a few intertitles either with historical information or to provide some additional commentary on the action such as when he tells us that violence from left wing samurai is a daily occurrence. Drawing a neat parallel between he chaos of the Bakumatsu era and its tussling between new and old, Kuroki leaves us with a sense of historical continuity by equating the left wing samurai rebellion of the 1860s with the left wing student moment of a whole century later.

However, Ryoma is just one man. In an enlightening metaphor about a cat who got stuck up a tree, Ryoma calls to it and tried to climb up to get the cat down but it just kept climbing higher and wouldn’t even take the mochi he tried to offer it on a stick. Eventually Ryoma wanted to cut the whole tree down in order to save the cat but everyone laughed at him – cut down a 10ft wide tree to save one skinny cat? At that time Ryoma laughed too but later it made him angry. He thought the idea of cutting down the tree should be allowed to be considered, that every option ought to be explored. The important thing is to see things from all angles and allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, reject all previous knowledge in the light of a new way of thinking. This kind of freedom is necessarily frightening and may lead others onto a path which you yourself do not wish to follow but all the same it is the very idea which gives birth to Ryoma’s entire philosophy.

Kuroki’s vision of this visionary hero is an unconventional one and one which was not universally accepted by the audience of the time. Just as radical as the man himself, Kuroki’s film portrays Ryoma as a modern revolutionary who lived a hundred years ago, yet wanted many of the same things that the youth of the day were still fighting for – personal freedom, equality for all, and a modern society which allowed his nation to stand independent, on an equal footing with its European counterparts. The assassination itself is brutal, bloody and efficient. It’s an uncinematic ending for a cinematic hero in which he’s violently cut down in a frenetic yet naturalistic fashion leaving a trail of polluting black blood spreading across the high contrast bright white background. His ideas were too radical for his era, and his tragic end a sadly predictable one but what does this say about the world of today and the would be revolutionaries whose voices appear to have been silenced?


(I’ve gone for surname first order here because that’s the most usual way of referring to historical figures – I accept that it’s confusing but it is at least consistant).

The life story of Sakamoto Ryoma has been dramatised many times, most recently as a Taiga drama, Ryomaden, directed by Rurouni Kenshin’s Ohtomo Keishi and starring Fukuyama Masaharu, which has apparently boosted Ryoma’s profile even more and created a raft of new tourist spots in various areas of Japan. (It’s obviously very long as it’s Taiga drama but is well worth the investment in time and effort.)

Unsubbed trailer: