Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Yoichi Takabayashi, 1975)

death at an old mansion posterKousuke Kindaichi is one of the best known detectives of Japanese literature. There are 77 books in the Kindaichi series which has spawned numerous cinematic adaptations as well as a popular manga and anime spin-off starring the grandson of the original sleuth. Sadly only one of Seishi Yokomizo’s novels has been translated into English (The Inugami Clan which has the distinction of having been filmed not once but twice by Kon Ichikawa), but many Japanese mystery lovers have ranked his debut, The Murder in the Honjin, as one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. Starring Akira Nakao as the eccentric detective, Yoichi Takabayashi’s Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Honjin Satsujin Jiken) was the first of three films he’d make for The Art Theatre Guild of Japan and updates the 1937 setting of Yokomizu’s novel to the contemporary 1970s.

Beginning at the end, Kindaichi (Akira Nakao) arrives at a country mansion with a sense of foreboding which borne out when he realises that the young lady he’s come to see, Suzu (Junko Takazawa), has died and he’s arrived just in time to witness her funeral. It’s been a year since he first met her, though he did so under less than ideal circumstances. As it happened, Suzu’s older brother, Kenzo (Takahiro Tamura), was married to a young woman of his own choosing, Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara), despite strong familial opposition. On the night of their wedding, the couple were brutally murdered inside a private annex to the main building. The doors were firmly locked from the inside and there was no murder weapon on site. The only clue was bloody three fingered handprint made by someone wearing the “tsume” or picks used for playing the koto. Kindaichi, already a well known private detective, was summoned to investigate because of a personal connection to Katsuko’s uncle, Ginzo (Kunio Kaga).

The original novel was published in 1946 and it has to be said, some of its themes make more sense in the pre-war 1937 setting than they do for the comparatively more liberal one of 1975 though such small minded attitudes are hardly uncommon even in the world today. The Ichiyanagi family live on a large family estate (apparently not the “Honjin” – a resting place for imperial retinues in the Edo era, of the title but the ancestral association remains) and enjoy a degree of social standing as well as the privilege of wealth in the small rural town. Katsuko, by contrast, is from a “lowly” family of well-to-do farmers – mere peasantry to the Ichiyanagis, many of whom believe Kenzo is making a huge and embarrassing mistake in his choice of wife. Kenzo, a middle-aged scholar, has shocked them all with his sudden determination to marry, not to mention his determination to break with family protocol and marry beneath him.

Japanese mysteries are much less concerned with motive than their Western counterparts, but class conflict is definitely offered as a possible reason for murder. Other clues have more menacing dimensions such as the repeated mentions of a scary looking three fingered man who apparently delivered a threatening letter to the mansion on the night of the murder, and Suzu’s constant questions about her recently deceased cat who liked to listen to her play the koto. Suzu is 17 but has some kind of learning difficulties and is arrested in a childlike state of innocence which leads her to utter simple yet profound words of wisdom whilst also believing that her recently deceased cat, Tama, is some kind of god. Suzu’s “innocence” is contrasted with her brother’s coldhearted rigidity in which he’s described as a sanctimonious snob who believes himself above regular folk and treats his servants with contempt. This same rigidity in fact aligns him with his sister as both share an “atypical” way of thought and behaviour. Kenzo’s unexpected romance turns out not to be middle-aged lust for domination but an innocent first love arriving at 40 with all the pain and complication of adolescence.

Kindaichi arrives to solve the crime and makes an instant partner of the police inspector in charge who’s glad to have such esteemed help on such a difficult case. Putting two and two together, Kindaichi soon comes up with a few ideas after rubbing up against a mystery novel obsessed suspect and numerous red herrings. Once again coincidence plays a huge role, but the business of the murder is certainly elaborate given the pettiness of the reasoning behind it. Takabayashi never plays down the typically generic elements of this classic mystery, but adds to them with eerie, occasionally psychedelic camera work, shifting to sepia for imagined reconstructions and making use of repeated motifs from the fire-like imagery of the water wheel to a shattered photo of Kenzo shot through the eye. Strangely framed in red and gold the murder takes on a theatrical association that’s perfectly in keeping with its well choreographed genesis, and all the more chilling because of it. A satisfying locked room mystery,  Death at an Old Mansion is also a tragedy of out dated ideals equated with a kind of innocence and purity, of those who couldn’t allow their dreams to be sullied or their name besmirched. Perhaps not so different from the world of 1937 after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

baby-cart-at-river-styxThe first instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series saw the former Shogun executioner framed for treason and cast down from his elite samurai world onto the “Demon’s Way” on a quest to clear his name and avenge the murder of his wife whilst caring for his young son, nominally also on the path of vengeance alongside his father. As far as progress goes, Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has made little other than dispatching a few of his enemy Yagyu foot soldiers and earning himself 500 ryou by ridding a spring town of some pesky gangsters. Well trained genre fans will correctly have guessed that chapter two in this six part series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kozure Okami: Sanzu no Kawa no Ubaguruma), contains more of the same as Ogami trudges onward pushing his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in a bamboo cart earning a living by way of the sword with his sights set on the Yagyu stronghold.

After swiftly despatching a series of Yagyu agressors, Ogami and Daigoro procede along the Demon’s Way, jointly earning their living as hitmen for hire. The procedures for hiring the Lone Wolf and his Cub are complicated – talismans are positioned on the road calling for their services, and if the pair are interested, they’ll build a trail of rocks to indicate a meeting. Their mission this time is in the name of a put-upon clan whose income stems from a unique dyeing technique, only they’ve been “underestimating” their takings to avoid unfair taxation by the Shogun. Another clan found out about their practices and sent in undercover agents to agitate among the workforce who were already feeling oppressed and misused. The elite samurai took out most of the ringleaders, but their foreman has run off and taken refuge with a neighbouring clan who claim to know nothing about him. Ogami’s job is to kill the manager before he reaches the Shogun and blows the whistle on everything and everyone.

In addition to the Hidari brothers – a trio of skilled ronin acting as bodyguards to Ogami’s target, Ogami also has to contend with the Yagyu currently still angry over the foot soldiers he dispatched in the first film. Now that they know Ogami is not a man to be taken lightly, they’ve handed over the assignment to their crack troop of female ninja led by the expert swordswoman, Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo).

As in the first film the action scenes are impressively choreographed if filmed with a degree of absurd whimsy. Sayaka attempts to ambush Ogami by having her women hanging out in the country performing normal tasks such as washing daikon at the riverside, only the daikon are filled with knives and these are no ordinary housewives. Ogami is not fooled and quickly despatches the full complement of female warriors with ease (and a little help from Daigoro and his well equipped cart), leaving him to face Sayaka one-to-one. Their battle ends in a stalemate in which Sayaka effects a daring ninja escape (from her kimono no less) to retreat to fight another day.

As much as Ogami is on the road to hell, he maintains his honour – as do his opponents, the Hidaris, who take the time even whilst trapped on a burning boat to explain to him that they have no particular grudge towards Ogami and mean him no ill will. They will though respond without mercy if attacked. Unfortunately, Ogami will have to do battle with them as they stand between himself and his target but his philosophy is broadly the same. He will be ruthless in the execution of his mission but is not a ruthless man and will attempt to leave bystanders out of his quarrels.

This oddly stoical quality of his threatens to turn Ogami into something of a wandering heartbreaker as once again he attracts the admiration of a woman, this time his closely matched rival Sayaka, just as he had the prostitute in the first film. Though determined to gain revenge for her fallen clan members, Sayaka is uncomfortable with her clansmen’s plan to kidnap Daigoro and use him as bait to trap Ogami. As the plan offends her honour, she frustrates it at a crucial moment, allowing Ogami to escape with Daigoro in hand. Later following him and trying again to assassinate Ogami during his flight from the aforementioned burning boat, Sayaka finds herself rescued by the very man she was trying to kill. Though misunderstanding Ogami’s rough tearing off of her wet clothes – ever uncommunicative, Ogami is simply trying to prevent her dying of hypothermia and borrow some of her body heat to help himself and Daigoro do the same, Sayaka eventually finds herself literally and figuratively “disarmed” by her target.

Heading back into the world of the spaghetti western, the final fight takes place in the desert with enemies buried in the sand itself. Misumi’s approach is even more psychedelic this time round in which he has Ogami fighting shadows and even more elaborate blood sprays striking the camera as heads, limbs, ears and fingers are severed with glee abandon. The mood shifts slightly as one fallen warrior is allowed a long dying monologue about the sad wail emanating from his fatal wound and his lingering feelings of jealously that he was never able to inflict the kind of elegant kill which Ogami so effortlessly effected on him. Still, the road is long. Ogami remains on the Demon’s Way seemingly no closer to achieving his goal and with a trail of fallen enemies and broken hearts stretching out behind him, but continue he must, pushing his baby cart onwards towards hell in search of both redemption and revenge but with no guarantee of finding either.


Original trailer (intermittent German subtitles only)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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