Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 15/03/2005. A follow-up season, Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, opens at the National Film Theatre in London on November 3rd 2006, and tours the UK afterwards.
As Japanese genre cinema picks up a new lease of life on the video racks of our nation, here's a useful touring festival of cult classics from the sixties and seventies. It visited various arthouses in the UK and Ireland between February and April 2005: this is what I thought of the films I saw when it hit London.
Japan! It's the new Hong Kong, or something. Ten years ago, you'd have found yards of video shelf space in HMV dedicated to Hong Kong action movies both past and present. Japan, on the other hand, would get much shorter shrift: perhaps just a couple of established classics from the likes of Kurosawa and Ozu, alongside Manga Video's redub of Tentacle Clusterfuck Episodes 23-24. Nowadays, it's all changed: Japanese genre cinema is suddenly hip all over again, thanks to contemporary directors like Miike Takashi, whose films seem to be getting a UK DVD release at an average of one per month. It's the perfect time for Wild Japan, a programme of eight Japanese movies from the sixties and seventies, touring the UK's cinemas between February and April 2005. Carelessly, the London section of the programme was split across three screens in two cinemas (the Finchley Phoenix and the Brixton Ritzy), scheduled in such a way that it was impossible to see all eight films. So don't expect to see any mention of The Girl With Red Hair here, except for that one. As for the other seven...
About the time that Battle Royale was released in the UK (summer 2001), I caught a fair chunk of a short touring season of films by its director, the veteran Kinji Fukasaku. By then he was pushing seventy, and had accumulated a wide and varied back catalogue - but he was always best known for his yakuza thrillers, featuring the life and times of the Japanese underworld. They're interesting enough, but they do tend to blur into each other, so I couldn't tell you for certain if I've seen his 1972 film Street Mobster before or not. It's the story of smalltime hood Isamu Okita (Bunta Sugawara) - the opening whirlwind reel introduces us to his childhood, his criminal life and his first stint in jail, with such economic use of voiceover and freezeframes that you wonder if Scorsese had seen it and taken notes. On Okita's release, he gets together with another crook, and they start plotting to pit the two main gangs in town against each other.
Fukasaku wasn't the first Japanese director to make thrillers about gangsters, of course. The key difference is that usually, the yakuza were treated as honourable men with a code. Street Mobster is notable for focussing on the low level hoodlums, the grunts whose tools are lead piping and knives - the first time someone from a rival gang turns up with a gun, nobody knows how to react. The main thing you take away from the film is an almost feral energy - it uses every device possible to keep itself moving faster than you can keep up with, including jittery hand-held camera, wild angles (sometimes the camera's virtually tilted at ninety degrees to fit in all the action) and the occasional embarrassing bit of speeded-up film. The mobsters are treated like kids misbehaving in a grown-up world, particularly Okita, who spends most of his time sulking and curling up like a teenager when he doesn't get his own way. There are a couple of minor problems - the usual yakuza film emphasis on rape as the key medium for communication between the sexes, and a beautifully dated score with some strange use of jews harp during dramatic moments - but the full-throttle excitement of its pacing overrides everything.
Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower, made in 1964, is a somewhat more traditional type of yakuza film. An unnamed gangster (Ryo Ikebe) comes out of jail after a few years, and (as in Street Mobster) initially finds it difficult to readjust to life back outside. In a gambling den he meets an unnamed girl (Mariko Kaga), and they strike up some sort of tentative friendship. As he leads her into the world of high stakes gaming, he starts to realise that they're very similar to each other: the element of risk is the only thing that keeps them interested in life.
There's nothing wrong with Pale Flower - in fact there's a lot that's right, from its laid back pacing to its lush black and white photography (marred every so often by apparently having an epileptic in charge of the zoom lens). But its atmospheric tone means it sits uncomfortably with the wham-bam nature of the other films in this season. Part of the problem is that a large part of the movie involves you having to follow one of those Japanese picture card games with impenetrable rules: if you don't understand what's going on, it's hard to get involved with the result of the games. In other circumstances I could probably have put that aside and got into the overall mood of the piece, but here it all seems a bit dull up until a fabulously staged hitjob at the climax.
The opening five minutes of Norifumi Suzuki's School Of The Holy Beast (made in 1974, and actually titled The Transgressor on this print) show Maya (Yumi Takigawa) spending the day in town, watching an ice hockey game, looking around the shops, picking up a stranger in the street and going to bed with him. Afterwards, he asks if he can see her again. Maya tells him no, he can't, because she's going into a convent the next day. Phew! Thought I was in the wrong film for a second there. It's a very dodgy convent indeed: self-flagellation is the primary method of atonement for sins, and the heavy atmosphere of repression means that a lot of sinning goes on. During her introductory speech, the Mother Superior outlines the three things that are banned in the convent - adultery, theft and murder - and coincidentally, they seem to be the three most popular activities. The only man who ever visits the convent is serial rapist Father Kakinuma (Fumio Watanabe), which complicates things even more. It makes you wonder why Maya chose to renounce her life of ice hockey and hetrosexuality to come here: but soon her own agenda becomes apparent.
I'm aware of nunsploitation as a genre, of course, but I don't believe I've actually seen any before. I'd always assumed that the key idea was the contrast of a sacred environment with profane acts, and there's certainly plenty of that here: tacky lesbian scenes, frequent topless whippings, and the idea that everyone can be perverted with just the right stimulus. Having said that, it's all stylishly done - from a jaw-dropping scene involving flagellation with rose bushes, to the ingenious use of a reflecting table top in the shot where the Mother Superior wanks over some dirty pictures. What's surprising for me is the amount of actual religious transgression involved here, possibly having more impact for me given my background as a recovering Catholic. You assume that the Japanese aren't terribly familiar with the Christian faith, but it definitely seems like a knowing gag when the nuns are taught that Christ wanted adulterers to be tortured and killed. And the lengthy sequence of a trial by ordeal, climaxing in a nun urinating copiously over a crucifix to the sound of angelic choirs, would have Bunuel himself applauding.
If we're talking about sexual exploitation in genre cinema, then I have to admit I'm much more familiar with women-in-prison movies. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, directed by Shunya Ito in 1972, doesn't really do much we haven't seen before. A young woman, Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is betrayed by her drug cop boyfriend (in a gloriously theatrical flashback scene with shifting scenery), and tries to kill him in revenge. She's sent to a brutal women's prison - as if there's any other kind - and spends her days trying to get by in the face of miso soup torture, lesbian taunting and so on. This isn't enough for her boyfriend, who starts setting up a plan to have her killed by a fellow inmate.
Female Prisoner #701 somehow feels more cheesily exploitative than Holy Beast, because it's more predictable - when a fellow convict offers to rub Nami's back for her, we know exactly how the next five minutes will pan out. (Though I admit it's a nice twist that the prisoner turns out to be a police informer, who ends up turned permanently lezzer by Nami's erotic wiles.) Again, there's an overabundance of visual style: towards the end I started wondering if you could make an entire film in Panavision with the camera on its side, using a tall narrow frame throughout, as is sometimes done here. And there's obvious historical interest in seeing the bits Tarantino nicked for Kill Bill, notably the theme song Urami Bushi about the fury of a woman's vengeance. But it's not very different from any other women in prison movie, or even any other prison movie, period. As a final irritation, the DVD shown at this screening has one of those manga-style subtitling jobs, with random bastard swearing thrown in every few words to fucking make it feel more adult.
If this middle section is focussing on the more sex-obsessed parts of the festival, then we could possibly include Kaneto Shindô's 1964 horror classic Onibaba in here too: I'm assuming the surprisingly large amount of female nudity is what got the film banned in the UK on its initial release, and only available in a cut version until as recently as 1990. It's set during samurai times, when common people have to survive whatever way they can. For one mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), that way is to kill any soldiers who stray into their particular patch of the long grass, chuck their corpses into the pit of the title, steal their belongings and sell them for money. It works well enough as a plan until Hachi (Kei Sato) barges his way into their lives, cheerily announcing that the son and husband they've been waiting for has been killed in the wars. He hassles them for a cut of their loot and something more personal from the daughter-in-law, which she's happy to provide after a suitable period of mourning. This annoys her mother-in-law no end, until by chance she discovers a way to make them both pay.
Onibaba is the one true established classic of this season, and with good reason - its cunning slow-burn dynamics and gradual accumulation of creepiness are still being replicated in today's Asian horror movies. There are still moments that can jolt an audience today, judging from the Finchley reaction to the scene involving the killing of a dog. (Inevitably, there wasn't a murmur over any of the human atrocities depicted in any of the films, though there was a definite cheer in Holy Beast when a nun was kicked through a window.) The style of Onibaba is still mightily impressive over forty years later, with the key visual and aural motif being the wind moving through the long grass - either elegaically during the love scenes, or roaring at the spellbinding climax.
Show the programme of Wild Japan to serious students of Japanese cinema, and they'll all agree that Onibaba is the best film on the list. Show it to people who spent too much time in video shops in the eighties, and they'll inevitably go for Shogun Assassin. This film's been treated appallingly by British video distributors over the past decade, who seem to be unable to agree what shape the picture is - the VHS release was compressed to 4:3, the DVD has been unnaturally stretched to around 3:1. If there's one thing the organisers of this festival need to be yelled at for, it's for promising us a rare chance to see a 35mm print of Shogun Assassin, and then giving us a DVD projection instead without any hint of an apology. Still, at least they got the aspect ratio right.
Patrick Macias' book TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion appears to be a key reference for Wild Japan's programme, and it tells the story of the making of Shogun Assassin better than I ever could. Still, to summarise. There's a Japanese series of six films called Lone Wolf And Cub, telling the story of the shogun's leading swordsman Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama). Following a falling-out with his boss, Ogami is forced to wander the earth with his young son Daigaro (Masahiro Tomikawa) in tow, their travels interrupted roughly once per reel by ninja attacks. Hollywood producer David Weisman bought the rights to the second of these films (Babycart At The River Styx) along with ten minutes of expository material from its prequel. Director Robert Huston then worked minor miracles cutting and redubbing the footage for the American market. In a truly inspired touch, Weisman showed the film to an audience of English-speaking deaf mutes, asked them to take a guess at what was being said, and used their responses to put together a English dub script that fitted the Japanese lip movements almost perfectly.
Shogun Assassin's release in 1980 coincided with the start of the home video boom. All the characteristic tropes of early 80s DTV fun are present and correct: a front-loaded plot to leave the last hour free for continuous fight sequences, a tacky yet evocative synth score, and - most notoriously - loads of high-pressure spurty gore. And yet, despite all that, there's something that lifts this film way above the level of the dross that used to sit alongside it at your video shop. The elegant visuals of the original are still intact, with just a few nips and tucks in the editing to keep the pace up. The fiendish device of having Daigaro narrate the film in voiceover (he doesn't talk in the Lone Wolf films) reduces the reliance on distracting dubbing, but that dubbing is spookily good. And Huston's edit still leaves in some elements that look strange to Western audiences - the backwards running ninjas, the slightly creepy surrogate family nude scene, and so on. Enjoyable as it was to see this projected on a big screen, I'm sure someone could clean up in cinemas with a decent restored print in the future.
Most samurai films, even Shogun Assassin, involve a hero with a defined moral code: it may be one primarily motivated by self-interest in the case of Yojimbo, but it's still a moral code. The protagonist of Kihachi Okamoto's 1966 film Sword Of Doom, Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), doesn't appear to even have that. When approached by the wife of a competitor in a forthcoming fencing contest with a plea to be merciful, he shags the wife and then kills the guy anyway. A couple of years down the line, he's a drunk mercenary doing the odd political hitjob for cash, coming back to the wife and their kid once in a while for cash. Meanwhile, as is inevitable in these cases, the brother of the dead guy is out to seek righteous vengeance.
You would occasionally get a character like Ryunosuke in samurai films, but he'd be the baddie and have much less screen time. in fact, you eventually realise where you've seen Tatsuya Nakada before - he was the gun-toting psycho facing off against Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. Amusingly, Mifune has a supporting role in this as the teacher of the vengeance-seeking brother, in one of those 'and' roles that turns up at the end of Japanese credits in large type. It's a shame that Sword Of Doom was projected from a slightly duff DVD copy, as the look of the film is terrific - all complex widescreen compositions, with huge figures in the foreground off to the side and tiny background detail. There's an initially irritating subplot involving the two survivors of Ryunosuke's first hit, but they eventually help the film build to an astonishing climax as his psychosis builds to almost apocalyptic levels, ending with a final shot that's a textbook example of leaving your audience wanting more. It was definitely a shame to discover Kihachi Okamoto died just a week before this screening, as his film might just have been my favourite of this festival.
The tour's well under way as I write this, and may well have passed through your town by the time you read it. But a lot of the films discussed here should be obtainable now or soon on DVD (see the links below). Whether you catch them on the big or small screen, it's nice to see these films getting a wider outing. Although there's a school of thought that suggests the Japan revival has already been and gone - and if you look at the Asian genre films that are really making waves these days, it could be argued that Korea is the new Japan. But I think I'll keep that thesis quiet until I've got some space to fill here in a couple of years. Being a monkey, and all.
Wild Japan's official site has full details of the films and the tour, plus some interesting backup articles. The London leg of the tour played at the Ritzy, Brixton and the East Finchley Phoenix, two of the capital's most beautifully preserved cinema interiors.
The Japan Foundation exists as a global cheerleader for Japanese culture, and deserve a mention here as they provided Wild Japan with some flawless 35mm prints of the key films in the season. They have a British site too.
Eureka Video are one of Wild Japan's sponsors: they currently have one of the season's films (Street Mobster) [dead link] in their catalogue, and may have more in the future. As a tie-in with the festival, they're running a competition [dead link] (with an unspecified closing date) to win a box set of Kinji Fukasaku yakuza movies [dead link].
Other DVD distributors are available, of course: Vipco (for Shogun Assassin), Artsmagic (for the original Lone Wolf And Cub [dead link] films that Shogun Assassin was compiled from), and Criterion (for what will hopefully be a better release of Sword Of Doom than the fuzzy Artsmagic copy that was shown in the festival).