Flame of Devotion (執炎, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

Koreyoshi Kurahara, like Seijun Suzuki, began his career at Nikkatsu mostly working on its youth-orientated commercial cinema only to end up being fired for producing films deemed too “arty” for the studio’s target audience such as his 1967 Mishima adaptation, Thirst for Love. Released the same year as Black Sun, 1964’s Flame of Devotion (執炎, Shuen) is in someways a much more subdued affair, a fairly atypical melodrama critiquing not only the destructive legacy of war but also a cultural insistence on stoical endurance in the face of emotional difficulty which is itself the mark and enabler of militarism. 

Beginning at the end, Kurahara opens with a small collection of men and women in mourning clothes walking towards a memorial service, later followed by an elegant young woman in western dress who has just arrived by train. Today marks the seventh anniversary of the death of a young woman, Kiyono (Ruriko Asaoka), who drowned herself after learning that her husband would not return from the war. The action then jumps back 20 years to a much more peaceful time in which the 10-year-old Kiyono first encountered the 12-year-old Takuji, before shifting to the more recent past in which the youngsters fell in love, overcame many hardships, and married only to be torn apart by war. 

The love story is complicated by the fact that Kiyono is a resident of a small and secretive village who claim to be descendants of the legendary Heike. Kiyono is a mountain woman, and Takuji (Juzo Itami) is a man of the sea, the son of a fishing village expected to take over the family business. When he first re-encounters Kiyono in his late teens, Takuji is in the process of finding wood to carve his own boat with dreams of sailing it all around the world. A mountain man advises him of a shortcut home, which brings him to Kiyono’s village where he serendipitously stops to ask for water and is invited inside. Kiyono insists on walking him back to the beach where she makes plain that she remembers him as the boy from all those years ago though he is now a man. She declares that she loves the sea, because it is big, manly, and also kind, abruptly stripping off and jumping in much to Takuji’s surprise. He waits for her on the beach every day after that, and the couple fall in love but the spectre of war is already upon them. Takuji has to leave for his mandatory military service and they are parted for the first time. 

Unable to see him off on the train because she would be ashamed to become emotional in front of so many people, Kiyono for the first time laments that she is not a strong woman. She sees this quality in herself as a failing and is constantly upbraided for it by the women around her who are quick to point out that the ability to bear all is a woman’s sorry duty. They see her as being too soft for the world, or perhaps merely too uninhibited, her mother lamenting that she always preferred the sea to the mountains which is perhaps why they finally agreed to allow her to leave the village and marry Takuji though no woman had ever married an outsider before. 

Yet Kiyono is a strong woman just in a different way. We were torn apart by a single order, Kiyoko laments, but when Takuji is injured she travels to the navy hospital to visit him and fiercely resists the doctor when he advises amputating Takuji’s leg. Though she is warned that the wound may become infected and Takuji may not survive, she is adamant that she will nurse him back to health herself and in fact does just that. To keep him safe from the war, Kiyono convinces Takuji move into an isolated cottage in the mountains where they can live together without being bothered by anyone else. She helps him learn to walk again, ignoring the advice of Takuji’s cousin Yasuko (Izumi Ashikawa) as a medical doctor that she is being reckless with Takuji’s health in boldly stating that she only wants the Takuji from before, not one damaged by war. But her devotion is a double edged sword, once he is healed, Takuji can be drafted again. She starts to regret her decision to oppose amputation.

The villagers, meanwhile, who had abandoned their initial scepticism to see Kiyono as a fine wife, now think her selfish and neurotic. They wonder why Takuji has not been to see his mother who is seriously ill, and for their own benefit want him to return so that he can communicate with the government who have requisitioned too many of their ships and left them unable to work. Kiyono has tried to create a space of her own into which the war may not enter, as if she were living in hiding. Nevertheless it is true that once Takuji makes the decision to leave the mountain the spell is broken, the war takes him, and there’s nothing Kiyono can do but “endure”. 

One of the ironic gifts brought to Kiyoko in the mountain is a Heike mask designed to contain all the pain and bitterness of a woman watching her husband march away to war. Yasuko, worried for her own husband, wonders if men and women are really so different. Kiyoko ironically replies that the men marching off to battle have an oddly beatific look, as if they too are in some way “enduring” in conforming to an idea of manliness though they too must be afraid, but if a woman looks that way it means she has gone mad. It’s the look that Kiyono herself eventually has, taking on the appearance of the mask, when her spirit is broken and she enters a kind of fugue state suspecting that Takuji will not return. 

Old women watching the few remaining men being recalled to the front remark on the cruelty, that they’re only going there to die because it’s quite obvious that the war is lost. It’s war which has divided the mountain and the sea, destroyed a fated a love, and created so much suffering. In an earlier time, Kiyono’s “devotion” might indeed have been seen as selfish, a desire to isolate herself and the man she loved and keep him from his duty because of her own pain. Now however, her tale is only tragedy. Not so much a woman driven mad by an excess of emotion, as a country by the lack of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

Suzaki paradise posterBy 1956, things were beginning to look up. Post-war privation was receding into the distance with the consumerist future already on the horizon, but as much as there were possibilities for some others found themselves floundering, unable to find direction in a world of constant change. Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Susaki Paradise: Akashingo)* was released in the same year that the anti-prostitution law came into force forever changing the face of the red light district and like its heroes finds itself hovering on a precipice caught between an old world the new.

Lovers Tsutae (Michiyo Aratama) and Yoshiji (Tatsuya Mihashi) have found themselves at a crossroads, or more accurately on a bridge, unsure whether to go forward, or back, or some other place entirely. Tsutae is disappointed in Yoshiji, expecting him as the man to have some kind of plan, while he is a little resentful of her fortitude and tendency to take the lead. Yoshiji grows maudlin and moody, berating himself for his failure of manhood, a failing for which Tsutae has little sympathy. Fed up with him, she runs off and catches a bus. He chases her, and they both get off at Susaki, home to a famous red light district. Yoshiji isn’t happy with this development, worried that Tsutae will cross the bridge and fall back into her “old self”, perhaps hinting at the kind of life she lived before. Luckily for them, Tsutae spots a help wanted sign at a tiny bar firmly on this side of the river. The landlady, Otoku (Yukiko Todoroki), is a kind woman raising her two sons alone, but is wary of handing the job to a woman the like of Tsutae. As she tells her, no one stays here long, most just see it as a stepping stone, a place where they can acclimatise themselves to the idea of crossing the bridge into the ironically named “Susaki Paradise”.   

Once you cross the bridge, most seem to say, you never really cross back. Later we learn that Tsutae is from the other side of the water and seemingly forever trying to escape her past though mostly through trying to attach herself to a man she thinks can carry her out it. Yoshiji seems to be aware that Tsutae is a former sex worker and is desperate to prevent her returning to her previous occupation, worried that he’ll lose her if she does or perhaps just unfairly judgemental. Likewise, we learn that he lost his job through some kind of impropriety, perhaps committed trying to keep Tsutae with him. Each of them is in one way or another trapped by patriarchal social codes, Tsutae believing that the only way she can save herself is by finding the right man to save her, and Yoshiji increasingly resentful for not living up to the male ideal. He can’t keep his woman, can’t provide for or protect her, most pressingly he cannot find a job but is also proud, shamed by the idea of accepting low paid manual work. He feels belittled and humiliated and is embittered by it.

Tsutae meanwhile takes to Otoku’s bar like a duck to water, quickly bringing in a host of male custom while bonding with the cheerful owner of a radio shop in nearby electronics centre Kanda, Ochiai (Seizaburo Kawazu). Otoku manages to find a job for Yoshiji delivering soba noodles in a local restaurant which he decides to take despite his intense resentment and wounded male pride. Ironically enough, the name of the soba restaurant is “Damasare-ya” which sounds like “tricked”, explaining why he might be reluctant to take the job, but the biggest problem is that he can’t trust Tsutae and is always paranoid about her meeting men in the bar or deciding to cross the bridge in his absence. Eventually, Ochiai offers to make Tsutae his mistress and provide a flat for her in Kanda, leaving her with a choice – “love”, if that’s what it is, with the feckless and jealous Yoshiji, or perfectly pleasant yet transactional comfort with Ochiai. Yoshiji, meanwhile, attracts the attentions of an earnest waitress in the soba noodle restaurant (Izumi Ashikawa) who seems to support his attachment to Tsutae but is also rooting for him to get over himself and live an honest life of hard work by knuckling down at his new job.

Yet that post-war restlessness won’t seem to let either of them go. Once you fall, you fall and it may not be possible to climb back up, or at least not without the right person to help keep you from slipping back down. Otoku has managed to keep a steady hand on the tiller, apparently waiting, we’re told, for the return of her husband who ran off with a woman from the red light district four years previously. The red light district, like toxic masculinity, cuts both ways and you’ll pay a heavy price for crossing the bridge. “People had better live honestly” a middle-aged man avows after having apparently seen the error of his ways, but it’s easier said than done.

When their worlds come crashing down, Tsutae and Yoshiji find themselves right back where they started, hovering on the bridge. “We have to live until we die” Tsutae once said, dismissing any fears we might have had that the pair might jump, but their course is both set and not. Now chastened, Tsutae’s decision to take a step back is both a reflection on the failure of her Susaki experiment, and also perhaps a mild concession to patriarchal social norms as she actively assumes the submissive role, affirming that she will follow Yoshiji’s lead while he reassumes his masculinity by finally taking charge. No longer quite so liminal they move on, another pair of floating clouds, perhaps more at home with who they are and can never be, but with no clear destination in sight.


*The reading of this place name is “Susaki” but the film has become more commonly known under the title “Suzaki Paradise”

Currently streaming on Mubi as part of an ongoing Yuzo Kawashima retrospective.

Title sequence (no subtitles)

Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

(C) Nikkatsu 1957

Eight Hours of Terror poster 2Mr. Thank You meets The Lady Vanishes? Seijun Suzuki’s early slice of claustrophobic social drama Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Hachijikan no Kyofu) is another worthy example Japanese cinema’s strange obsession with buses, transposing John Ford’s Stagecoach to the Japanese mountains as a disparate collection of travellers is forced onto a perilous overnight journey in the hope of making their city-bound connection. Shooting in academy ratio and with a mix of studio shot interior action and on location footage, Suzuki keeps the tension high but maintains his detached sense of humour, finding the comedy in the petty prejudices and selfish preoccupations which take hold when civilisation is abandoned and bandits run free.

When a typhoon causes a landslide and halts the trains, the anxious travellers in a small mountain town are left with the choice of waiting until the tracks are clear or piling into a rundown rail replacement service and driving through the mountains overnight to meet their Tokyo-bound connection set to leave at midday. They are warned that there has recently been a bank robbery and the police have issued a general alert for loose bandits. Those whose journey is not “urgent” might do better to wait, but the bus is the only solution for anyone wanting to get back to the city in good time.

Tense as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the bus journey throws together a group of people who would never normally keep company with each other and largely have no interest in bonding in their shared hardship. Businessmen moan endlessly about potentially missed meetings while student radicals ironically mirror them, giving mini lectures on leftwing politics to a disinterested audience and trying to raise rousing choruses of Russian folk songs to lift the spirits of the masses. Meanwhile, a suicidal mother with a young baby sadly bides her time, a pan pan makes the best of a bad situation, an elderly couple frets anxiously about making it back to the city to see their seriously ill daughter, and a policeman escorts a man arrested for the murder of his former wife and her new husband.

The spectre of the war haunts them all – almost like a fare-dodging stowaway concealed somewhere on the back of the bus. The driver lost his son and grandchildren in Manchuria, the nervous lingerie salesman claims to have led a motorised brigade but is constantly terrified by every little set back, and the convict turns out to be a former army doctor battling some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with intense rage and regret for his post-war fate. The student radicals regard the presence of the bandits as a symptom of social breakdown (a narrative they can get behind in the general failures of capitalism) while the fat cat CEO and his ridiculously bejewelled wife angrily bark at the young men who can’t find work in the struggling post-war economy, attributing their economic difficulties to pure laziness and failure to slot into to the demands of a conformist society.

The twin dramas revolve around the intertwined fates of the young woman and her baby, and the bank robbers who eventually turn up and hijack the bus. Despite a need to pull together in the face of adversity, many of the passengers are content to ignore the pain and suffering of those around them in order to achieve their own selfish goals. The lingerie salesman, panicked by the delay, attempts to drive the bus over a rickety bridge the driver is currently checking for safety at the risk of everyone’s lives. Meanwhile the woman and her baby are missing. Later found seriously ill, the woman recovers but the baby struggles. The pan pan, who becomes the de facto leader of group, suggests getting the convict, a former doctor, to treat the baby but not everyone is happy about uncuffing a potential killer even if it means life and death for an innocent child. Similarly, after the pan pan helps to despatch one of the hijackers, many of the passengers want to drive off and leave her behind with only the convict eventually coming to her rescue. Despite all she’d done for them, the passengers reject her once again when directly confronted by the taboo nature of her work as a prostitute at the American bases after someone steals her purse and finds a picture of a black GI inside the fold.

The world outside the bus is changing. The pan pan fears for her future now the occupation is coming to an end, as do some of the young men who’d relied on the presence of the American troops for their employment. The CEOs and lingerie salesmen of the world are content to remain within their own bubbles, ignoring everyone else they protect their elitist status while the idealistic student activists are perhaps no better – they too want to take the hijackers’ ill gotten gains and repurpose them for social good by getting more leftists elected to parliament. The convict and the pan pan are the kindest and the most human, finding an unexpected bond in their shared humanism while the aspiring actress finds joy in treating everything like a fantastic adventure only to give up on her dreams of stardom after realising she’d be forced to kiss a bunch of guys she didn’t like in order to achieve them.

Mixing studio shot rear projection and location shooting of the bus making its precarious journey along winding mountain roads, Suzuki keeps the tension high as the passengers bicker and bond, eventually banding together despite themselves in order to despatch the final bandit who finally takes care of himself. Things do, however, end by going back to normal. Crisis averted, the same old prejudices return as soon as “civilisation” reappears on the horizon. 


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.


Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1962)

I hate but love posterDoes “pure love” exist in the Japan of 1962, and if so what does it look like? Yujiro Ishihara, the poster boy for youthful rebellion, might not be the best person to ask but it’s his unfulfilled media superstar that ultimately determines to find out. In I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Nikui Anchikusho) Koreyoshi Kurahara puts the jazz clubs and delinquency of The Warped Ones to one side for a Technicolor romp that owes more to Day/Hudson than it perhaps does to James Dean or Marlon Brando. Yet there is something mildly subversive in its low level criticism of Japan’s lurch towards the consumerist future, finding only emptiness in fame and success while the central couple’s deliberately repressed desires push them towards a point of both spiritual and physical exhaustion.

Daisaku (Yujiro Ishihara) and Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka) have been a couple for two years. Noriko is also Daisaku’s manager and has been with him since he was broke and an aspiring poet. Now he’s one of Japan’s top DJs and she looks after his schedule which is packed in the extreme – in fact it leaves him no time for sleeping between his radio show, TV appearances, and meetings in bars, not to mention a late night date starting at 2am! Raiding the local papers for a suitable human interest story they can flag up on the show, Noriko stumbles over the tale of a local woman who is looking for a “driver who understands humanism”. Intrigued, Daisaku and his producer Ichiro (Hiroyuki Nagato) set off to interview her but the woman doesn’t want to be involved with the media – she doesn’t want to sully her love! The fact of the matter is, Yoshiko (Izumi Ashikawa) has kept up a romance with a doctor in a rural town by letter alone and used all her savings to buy a jeep to help transport his patients more effectively. Yoshiko doesn’t need to see Toshio (Asao Koike) – her dashing doctor fiancé, she believes in their love and that’s good enough for her. She just needs someone to actually take the jeep to Kyushu where it is most needed.

Just at this point, Daisaku’s relationship with Noriko reaches a crisis point. Lovers for two years, they each feared the sparks would fade and so to keep them popping they’ve committed to a rule of no physical contact. Spark they do (though not always in a good way), but when trapped in Daisaku’s apartment one rainy afternoon and bored out of their minds they nearly give in – damaging the fragile balance they’ve managed to build through mutual rejection of their equally mutual attraction. Though Noriko remains committed to their plan for long term romance, the non-encounter pushes Daisaku into a profound state of crisis in pondering the nature of his relationship – does “pure love” exist, does he really “love” Noriko, what is the point and the purpose of their central bond of negation? Hoping to find all of that out, Daisaku makes a surprise on air announcement that he himself will drive Yoshiko’s truck to Kyushu and see what her Toshio does with that.   

Yoshiko and Noriko set themselves up as rivals – not for Daisaku’s heart but for the true nature of “love”. “Reclaiming” Daisaku’s Jaguar so she can chase after him, Noriko has a few words for Yoshiko, pointing out that she’s been patiently “building” her love with Daisaku for 737 days. Yoshiko looks at her pityingly – you don’t “build” love, she tells her, you just believe it. For Yoshiko her letters were enough, her love an act of faith, but for Noriko love is a process and an almost scientific endeavour filled with recordable and quantifiable data. Yet everything Noriko says about Daisaku is correct – she knows who he is and truly understands him, every part of him is welcome to her and so she is perfectly placed to find him off on his magic quest even if her desire to bring him back to the city is misplaced.

Daisaku’s journey puts them both through the ringer though their bond is never seriously in question. He runs and she follows, though neither of them can quite escape the net of the society in which they live. Daisaku’s flight is perhaps more from his micromanaged yet extremely comfortable life than it is just of a difficult romance. Taking to the road he wants to feel something, to know that there is something real out there. Unfortunately, even his attempt to embrace something “real” is subverted by his media buddies who secretly film him and air the footage like it’s all been a giant publicity stunt. Fearing that their cash cow is “drunk on humanism”, they ready a contingency plan to bring him back into the fold.

Ichiro tells Noriko that her desire to “tie Daisaku down” is not love but “female egotism”. What drives Noriko isn’t really a desire for control (Daisaku seemingly allows her enough of that), but a need to be needed and fear that Daisaku, now rich and famous, will eventually leave her. Paranoid their love will fail, she rejects its consummation. Yet faith alone is not enough, as Yoshiko painfully finds out on witnessing the disconnect between her imagined love created through her letters and the real flesh and blood man before her to whom she essentially has no real connection. Reaching the end of their journey, Daisaku and Noriko are forced together again, each abandoning some part of their Tokyo lives and personas to break through to something deeper and more essential. Their path takes them straight into a bizarre summer festival complete with giant floats and excited men in traditional Japanese underwear throwing water everywhere. When they finally reach their destination, their love transcends faith to become ritual, their ennui somehow transformed into an ironic celebration of life in fulfilled desire.   

Ichiro categorises Noriko and Daisaku as stingy children – defiantly saving the best for last. There is certainly something immature in their constant bickering and bargaining, the superstition that they can keep their love alive by continually rejecting it and repressing their desire for each other, but there’s also something faintly realistic in the messy grown-up commitment phobia of it all even if it joyfully strays into the absurd. Light and bright and breezy, Kurahara works in the darknesses of early ‘60s Japan from the destructive effects of celebrity and media manipulation to the emptiness of a life of excess but even if he doesn’t quite find “pure love” he does find something close to it in a perfect merger of faith and industry.


Intimidation (ある脅迫, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

Intimidation still 1Social class as a means of social control is rarely dealt with overtly in Japanese cinema, but it’s been there all along from the feudal concerns of the jidaigeki to the inherent unfairness of the post-war world which made so many false promises to ambitious young go-getters, misselling dreams of social mobility in a newly meritocratic society. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation (ある脅迫, Aru Kyohaku) is a noirish tale of blackmail and inexorable fall, but the title refers not just to the act literal act but to the oppression of a society in which the unscrupulous prosper and friendship, even love, is willingly sacrificed for the superficial comforts of wealth and status.

Bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is riding high. He’s just been awarded an important new promotion but his success is less down to his innate talents, than to the fact he’s married the chairman’s daughter, Kumiko (Yoko Kosono). While Takita went to university and catapulted himself into the upper middle-classes, his childhood friend Nakaike (Ko Nishimura) only graduated middle school and has been working hard as a clerk in the same bank ever since. To make matters worse, Kumiko was once Nakaike’s sweetheart and Takita the lover of Nakaike’s sister, Yukie (Mari Shiraki). Where Nakaike is meek and earnest, Takita has abused every privilege he’s been given – illegal loans, backhanders, dodgy business deals and even an affair or two have left him wide open to blackmail. Takita’s party is about to end – Kumaki (Kojiro Kusanagi), a Tokyo hood, has proof of Takita’s improprieties and he threatens to expose all if he doesn’t get a sizeable amount of cash. It’s money that Takita doesn’t have, but Kumaki has a plan – Takita needs to rob his own bank. After all, who would expect the bank manager to raid his own vault?

Takita’s rise is as much down to societal corruption as it is his own lack of moral integrity. He’s got on by the traditionally “corrupt” ways that society condones – i.e. a dynastic marriage. He may have worked hard to get into university and get a good job that would enable him to be the kind of match a middle-class father would seek to arrange for his daughter, but everything after that is as straightforward and inevitable as a pair of train tracks. Takita has made it – his father-in-law will take care of everything else, all he has to do is sit back and avoid making any catastrophic mistakes. Perhaps because of the oppressive simplicity of his life, Takita has a lot going on the side – the “playing with fire” that he jokes about in his affairs and illicit backdoor deals are perhaps his ways of bucking the system, laughing at if not quite biting the hand that feeds. 

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nakaike has been patiently muddling through waiting for a break that society just does not want to give him. Leaving school early (for circumstances which are never revealed but probably easy to guess) has defined his life prospects. Takita went to university, married Nakaike’s teenage sweetheart, and then became his boss – it isn’t fair, but it’s how things work. Not content with swiping Nakaike’s prospects, Takita continues to lord it over him, pretending to be “friends” like old times but belittling Nakaike behind his back and even continuing to carry on with his sister Yukie who has never given up on the childhood sweetheart who threw her over for career opportunity. Nakaike is bound by the superficial rules of society and men like Takita laugh at him for it, they think he’s a fool who doesn’t understand how the system works and only exists as a mechanism for them to exploit.

When Takita gets Nakaike roaring drunk as a part of his nefarious plan, Nakaike admits that he always found Kumiko intimidating – he has a natural deference to and mild fear of her upper-class elegance. Takita has no such qualms – he wants into that club, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to step on to get there. Yukie blames her brother for their present situation. She thinks his meekness makes him an obvious doormat, that if he had any kind of spine he wouldn’t have let Takita walk all over him and marry Kumiko which would mean she wouldn’t be trapped in the never-ending torment that is being Takita’s mistress rather than his wife. Playing lady Macbeth she needles and provokes her brother, though even if he should snap there’s not a lot that he could do.

Kurahara begins with the passage of a train and later ends on the same image. Our two protagonists are each railroaded towards their fates even if they think they can make a break for pursuing their own destinies. They both think they’ve won, got ahead of the other and the various things which chased them, beaten the intimidation of the society in which they live which attempts to “railroad” them onto a set of pre-ordained courses, but all each of them do is lose. The train rolls silently onward, there is no point of disembarkation save that which it allows, and its conductors are everywhere.


Robbery scene (dialogue free)

Teenage Yakuza (ハイティーンやくざ, Seijun Suzuki, 1962)

teen age yakuza poster jpgNikkatsu’s stock in youthful angst could have a nasty edge, even in their early days, but even so the Japanese teen movie is often a charming affair in which plucky youngsters defy the perils of their time from a position of relative safety. Rebellious punks die in Nikkatsu Action, but in the poppier coming of age world, innocence wins out as the angry young man finds a way to repurpose his rage for the good of society. Though Seijun Suzuki is generally associated with his “incomprehensible” work for the studio which eventually fired him in 1968, his trademark sense of absurd irony is a perfect fit for the essentially innocent world of the small town teen in ‘60s Japan.

High schooler Jiro (Tamio Kawaji) lives in a fatherless family with a grown-up older sister (Noriko Matsumoto) thinking about marriage and a mother (Kotoe Hatsui) about to open a trendy coffee shop/jazz parlour. He’s best friends with Yoshio (Hajime Sugiyama) – son of the carpenter working on the cafe, and is a typical scatterbrained teenage boy who enjoys fighting and has a “part-time job” taking illicit bets at the bicycle races. His problems start when he wins big on a bet but is hassled by a couple of punks dressed up like cowboys who deprive him of his winnings. Getting revenge, Jiro and Yoshio end up in a fight with the local gangsters in which Yoshio is stabbed in the leg and crippled for life and to make matters worse, his dad is killed in a traffic accident rushing to the scene of the crime. Filled with remorse, Yoshio turns to the dark side and falls out with Jiro while the petty punks start upping the ante and terrorising the town. The daughter of a local restaurant owner, Kazuko (Midori Tashiro), pulls Jiro in to frighten the punks off and convinces her dad to pay him for his time. Soon enough the other store owners are doing the same and Jiro is earning a pretty penny but what he thinks of as public service the store owners are beginning to think of as extortion – Jiro has become the yakuza he feared.

Like many a Nikkatsu hero, Jiro is a good kid misunderstood. He thought he was the lone voice standing up to the yakuza, the only sheriff in town and a shining beacon of justice. He didn’t see danger in taking the money because he genuinely thought it was a gift given freely out of gratitude, and perhaps to begin with it was. Danger rears its head when his sister’s fiancé suggests that Jiro’s illicit bodyguard business might cause problems for him at work and thereby endanger their marriage. When his mum talks sense into him, Jiro decides to try stopping the payments but it’s already too late. Thinking Jiro is after more money the store owners are scared, assuming Jiro will either remove his protection or turn on them as the yakuza they now believe him to be.

This sudden reversal of his self perception deeply wounds Jiro. He believed he was acting in the best interests of everyone and now has to accept he was corrupted by greed and status. He was acting like a yakuza, if accidentally, and has to accept his complicity in his present predicament. Rather than lashing out in rage and becoming the thing he’s been branded, Jiro (eventually) swings the opposite way, commits to ridding the town of yakuza but accepts that delinquency is not his best weapon.

Teenage Yakuza (ハイティーンやくざ, High Teen Yakuza) is no lone wolf story – lone wolves die at the end of Nikkatsu pictures, but Jiro and his ilk need to live to restore the peacefully innocent atmosphere that was broken by the random cowboys at the beginning. Jiro realises that saving the town is not his responsibility – at least not his alone, and he cannot do it all by himself. If the town is to be saved, it has to be because everyone chose to save it – Jiro’s job is not to fight the “yakuza”, but to make everyone else understand that the “yakuza”’s power is illusionary. Leading by example, he gradually wins them over (even the petty delinquents his original exploits helped to corrupt), ousting the growing influence of the shady gangsters through simple resistance.

A shorter, more disposable effort, Teenage Yakuza perhaps allows Suzuki wider scope for experimentation or at least allows him to express his trademark irony in a more direct way than your average programmer would. Filled with the youthful energy of the frequently echoed pop song, the twisters in the jazz bars, and the soba noodle delinquent with her cheerful ukulele, this is less youth on fire than youth breezing through. Teenage Yakuza neatly subverts the ideology of Nikkatsu’s action line, refusing the bad end for the angry lone wolf and gleefully restoring order with a hippyish plea for the solidarity of goodness. 


Teenage Yakuza is the third of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Takashi Nomura, 1967)

colt is my passport posterJo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.

Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.

The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.

Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.

Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).

Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.