Japan! It's still the new Hong Kong, or something. Which is why a second collection of outlandish Japanese genre movies from the 60s and 70s is making its way around the arthouses of the UK at the moment. Here's what to expect if and when it reaches your town.
When Matt Palmer organised the first Wild Japan season of movies back in 2005, we were in the middle of a small surge of UK interest in Japanese cinema. To be honest, there hasn't been much development on that score since then. Sure, nearly all the movies in the 2005 season are now available on DVD in the UK, but I was hoping it would lead to more of these 60s and 70s genre flicks turning up on the shop shelves, and that hasn't happened yet.
Which probably makes it a good time for Matt to have another go, as he curates a second season, Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. Inspired by a book of the same title by the mysteriously monikered Chris D, this collection of twelve films mines similar territory to the eight shown in 2005. In fact, four films from the first season come back again, but in 35mm prints rather than the fuzzy DVD copies that were screened last time. I don't intend to review Pale Flower, School Of The Holy Beast or Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion again here, and will merely point out in the case of Sword Of Doom that, as I suspected at the time, it rocks like a mofo when shown in 35mm on a big screen. Go back to the original article if you want to read about those four: we're focussing on the other eight here.
In an attempt to batter those eight films into three distinct categories for the purposes of the page layout, we start with the swordplay films in general, and Zatoichi The Fugitive in particular. The character of Zatoichi, the blind masseur and supernaturally good swordsman, has been a staple of Japanese cinema for several decades now: in the West, the films have had a small cult following which received a welcome boost from Takeshi Kitano's 2003 version. Zatoichi The Fugitive, directed by Tokuzo Tanaka in 1963, is the fourth in the series, and like the rest it features Shintaro Katsu in the lead. Based on my exposure to Zatoichi so far - i.e. this film and the Kitano - I'd imagine that all the films in the series have a similar structure: Zatoichi strolls into town, quickly gets into a fight, gets involved with some pre-existing conflict as a result, and sorts it out.
In this particular case, the original fight is with a young man who attacks Zatoichi
for the price on his head, but isn't good enough to get it. Paying
condolences to the dead kid's mum, Zatoichi finds himself in the middle of a
Yakuza turf battle, one that happens to involve an old flame of his.
For the most part, the film's an exercise in tension-building, which is a roundabout way of saying that there isn't much fighting. But the dry witty dialogue and cool shooting style make this effortless to watch, carrying the viewer through to the inevitable giant battle at the climax. Sure, this may be part of a whole series of almost identically plotted
films, but it doesn't make this one any less enjoyable: it's solidly constructed genre fun, and gains immeasurably from being shown on the big screen.
The Great Melee (actually called The Great Killing on the print shown here) is another samurai era story, but one shot in a curiously modern style. A tyrant ruler is clamping down on all resistance, and has drawn up a death list of his enemies which is being vigorously enforced. A man hides one of those enemies in his house, but in the ensuing battle his own wife is killed. While trying to escape he teams up with a group of renegades, who have an audacious plan to bring about change through a meticulously planned political assassination.
It has to be said, watching it at a late Tuesday screening after a busy day at work, I felt The Great Melee had a bit too much plotting and not enough of the shit going down, and found myself drifting off a bit in the first half. But when the shit actually does go down, it goes down in a fascinating way. The Belated Birthday Girl has a fondness for the scrappy, unco-ordinated way that fistfights break out in Yakuza films, but this is the first time I've seen that loose, apparently unchoreographed feel translate to a huge battle with swords and horses - it's almost total chaos, with just enough focus at the centre of the frame for you to keep track of what's important. With lots of hand-held and highly mobile photography, it feels more like 1964 (the year of its making) than the period: and it's fascinating to read in the programme notes that director Eiichi Kudo was attempting to make a statement about contemporary student protests, but in the guise of a traditional jidai-geki picture.
Moving into the Middle Section Of Unclassifiable Weirdness, we encounter a genre that the previous Wild Japan season managed to somehow avoid: the sexpose torn from the pages of real life. Toshio Matsumoto's 1970 curiosity Funeral Parade Of Roses starts by spending ten minutes or so following bargirl Eddie (Peter) at work and play, until a horrified freeze-frame in the middle of a shower sequence reveals that Eddie is in fact - gasp! - male. This revelation's immediately followed by a po-faced interview with the actor Peter about how long he's been 'queen' (as the subtitles put it). There are a number of interviews like this scattered throughout the film, all conducted by the director in an apparently horrified tone, as he repeatedly asks the gay cast members if they really don't like girls.
The film that these interviews keep interrupting is, for the most part, plotless fun using every nouvelle vague trick in the book - rapid cuts, repetition of shots, on-screen captions. It's disjointed as hell, but there are definitely some arresting sequences: the taunting flash of the Japanese censor's logo after a scene involving three transvestites in a gents' urinal, a catfight filmed in the street in front of an audience of appreciative passers-by, and some fun with speeded-up film that possibly inspired Stanley Kubrick to try something similar in A Clockwork Orange not long after. The only thing holding all these scenes together is the character of Eddie, as we follow his day-to-day life and eventually discover the Dark Secret that homosexuals all had to have back in those days. The climax is screamingly over-the-top, but you have to give the film credit for keeping its literary inspiration a surprise until the last five minutes. (Though every other review I've read has spunked that detail away in its first paragraph.)
Housu is a more traditional horror movie (sort of), made in 1977. It actually calls itself House in the opening titles, in cartoony English letters, with big pointy teeth on the O: which gives you your first clue about the uncertain tone of the piece. Fanta (Kumiko Oba) is a schoolgirl who was meant to be spending the summer holidays with her widowed father, only for her whore of a new stepmother to come in and ruin it all. Six of Fanta's friends, meanwhile, were meant to be going on a road trip, but have had to put it off owing to their driver getting his arse stuck in a bucket. (I am not making this up.) The seven girls decide to completely revamp their holiday plans, and pay a visit to Fanta's auntie, who lives in a large house with a white cat and a whole heap of surprises.
But forget about the plot - after all, that's what director Nobuhiko Obayashi does. Instead, bask in the utterly outrageous visual style of the film, or perhaps more accurately lack of style: so much is thrown at the viewer that you can't tell if it's deliberately avant garde or accidentally shit. We get unrealistic matte paintings, unexpected scene transitions (some of the wilder picture-in-picture excesses made me think of Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book), and editing that refuses to obey any of the established rules. When all this is joined by a cheesily annoying pop score that covers at least 95% of the film, and remains aggressively jaunty even when people are having their hands cut off by a malevolent piano, you start to wonder who on earth this film could have been aimed at. Nowadays, it could possibly work if you cast a girly J-Pop band like Morning Musume as the leads, and aimed it at the screaming teen market - but even then, there would be problems with the tits and gore that stop this from being a jokey spookfest. Still, its ramshackle nature has a certain charm.
Nobuo Nakagawa's 1960 horror Jigoku is more of an established classic - it's got a Criterion DVD and everything. The title translates as Hell, and we're told quite early on that this film's going to spend some time there. It's a story of two halves. In the first half, we follow two young men - Shiro (Shigeru Amachi) and his mysterious colleague Tamura (Yoichi Numata) - in the aftermath of their accidentally running over and killing a man. Tamura has no remorse, even though he was the one actually driving at the time: meanwhile, Shiro is tortured by grief and wants to make things better. Unfortunately, all his attempts to do that make everything much, much worse: and as the second half shows, even his death is only the beginning of his torment.
To be honest, Jigoku gets a lot better once everyone concerned is dead and burning in hell. The first half is played in a realistic register, but its mounting catastrophes just get more and more ridiculous, such as when one character falls off a bridge for no reason whatsoever. But in hell, it all kicks off, and the classic torments of the damned are luridly recreated before our very eyes. It's particularly harsh on Shiro, whose only actual crime appears to have been a bit of pre-marital nookie: but no matter. That last half of the film has enough crazed invention to make up for the silliness of the first half - though it made me more appreciative of Housu, which at least had a coherent viewpoint within itself, even if that viewpoint makes no bloody sense to the rest of the outside world.
Finally, we have the inevitable collection of crime flicks that a season like this is bound to contain: and most inevitable of all is that such a collection will contain at least one gangster film by the veteran Kinji Fukasaku. You could perm any combination of the words battle, graveyard, honour, humanity and yakuza and probably end up with a title he's used at one time or another in his career: like Yakuza Graveyard, which he made in 1976. This one involves ultra-violent loner cop Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari), who's been transferred from his usual beat into the middle of an escalating gang war. His loner status doesn't improve - he's known to cops everywhere as 'the one who shot that guy two years ago' - and it gets worse as he realises that the corrupt police are rigging the upcoming war in favour of a crime family they do business with. With typical perversity, he starts working with the opposing family, especially after he falls for the gang boss' wife (played by Meiko Kaji, who we'll come back to shortly).
Yakuza Graveyard is shot with Fukasaku's usual balls-out velocity - running battles filmed with running hand-held camera, shots rotating through 90 degrees to fit full length views of the characters, all within a defined syntax that frequently uses whip pans to ensure every scene goes hurtling straight into the next one. The violence is authentically messy, with the fistfights looking like totally out of control rucks. But there's a lot of substance behind the style. In particular, it's interesting to see how the mixed race cop and the mixed race gangsters end up forming an alliance against everyone else - the sort of theme that directors like our old chum Takashi Miike still explore today. The result is solid blokey entertainment, with enough political subtext to make it more than just a guilty pleasure.
Yakuza Graveyard is a solid example of the Yakuza genre, and it's fun to see it here paired off with a legendary subversion of the genre: Seijun Suzuki's Branded To Kill. Forty years ago, Suzuki was making a name for himself with a series of gangster flicks turned out at lightning speed. However, he was frequently ignoring the scripts he'd been given and throwing his own surreal, magnificent imagery on the screen. After what's now considered his masterpiece, Tokyo Drifter, he was on a warning from the studio bosses to behave himself: after Branded To Kill, its 1967 followup, they sacked him. You can kind of see their point: Nikkatsu were trying to make cheap exploitation flicks for the masses, and had no time for experimentation. Tokyo Drifter, despite its more surreal interludes, at least looked ravishingly pretty and had at its centre a romantic loner figure (always popular in a culture of conformity) with his own gloriously hummable theme song. Branded To Kill, filmed in the harshest blacks and whites possible, features Jo Shishido as a mentally unstable hitman - known as No. 3 Killer - who can only achieve sexual arousal when he smells boiling rice. You can see how that would go down with the studio suits.
Of course, forty years on, we can be all postmodern and arty about it, and see how Suzuki's playing with the cliches of the genre: in fact, for the first half of the movie, the excitement comes from seeing those cliches played out at high velocity with almost no logical connecting tissue between them. Frenetic shootouts, rough sex (more than I remembered from my first viewing), a hitman uncertain where he's going in his job: it's all there, just not in the order you'd expect. It's surprising how much the film settles down in the second half, where it becomes the story of the conflict between No 3 Killer and No 1 Killer. (On the Criterion DVD we watched this on, this part of the story is heralded by an amusing technical cockup where the subtitle "who is number 1?" stays on screen for the entire duration of a five minute gun battle.) But an imaginative final confrontation in a darkened gym sends the film over the edge again. Over three decades later, Suzuki would remake this story in colour with more girls and less bleakness, and call it Pistol Opera - both that film and the original are well worth tracking down.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter was made in 1970 by exploitation director Yasuharu Hasebe, whose other works include The Naked Seven, Assault! Jack The Ripper, and Raping! Not sure how much of an empty come-on those other titles are, but I have to report that Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, despite containing sex and hunting, has no actual sex hunting in it. (Rather like the Hong Kong exploitation classic Naked Killer, in which none of the naked people kill anyone and none of the killers are naked.) It's the third episode in a series of movies about a girl gang led by Mako (Meiko Kaji again, wearing the best hat in movie history). The gang are your typical young delinquents, hanging out in clubs, rolling businessmen for money to buy sexy pants, and so on. Mako has an on-off relationship with Baron (Tatsuya Fuji), her opposite number in male gang the Falcons. However, that starts to cool when Baron develops a fetish for racial purity, and starts a series of attacks on mixed-race people: especially one who's just arrived in town looking for his sister, and is spending more time with Mako than is good for his health.
The fascinating racial subplot, aside from its echoes of Yakuza Graveyard, reminds you of the way that social issues were shoehorned into Russ Meyer's exploiters to try and justify the titties. Like Meyer's films, this is exuberantly shot, with interesting visual quirks like the frame constricting from Cinemascope to Academy size during the more intimate scenes in the mixed-race club. If there's a difference from Meyer, it's that Mako is a somewhat passive protagonist who doesn't really do anything, other than break up the gang-rape of her mates with a crate or two of petrol bombs. Mainly, she's just there as a catalyst for the male conflicts, as they escalate towards a spectacularly futile rifle shootout at the climax. That quibble aside, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is the most full-on fun of the season, but its analysis of the Japanese attitude to foreigners in their midst makes it even more interesting.
At the time of writing, Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters has already played at the National Film Theatre in London, and started its UK tour at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. In the early part of 2007, you should also be able to catch it at Glasgow Film Theatre, Sheffield Showroom, the Arnolfini in Bristol and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. Sure, some of these films are out on DVD for you to buy below, and if the last season is anything to go by the rest should follow soon. But part of the joy of this season is seeing these things projected onto a big screen, and if you get the chance to do so you should jump at it. I certainly did. Being a monkey, and all.