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Blind Monk Swordsman

November 21, 2018

Aku bozu kyokakuden (悪坊主侠客伝) (1964)

Toei’s ninkyo yakuza shot at milking the Zatoichi craze with a blind yakuza monk character. Too bad it isn’s any good. Famed jidai geki veteran Jushiro Konoe (the father of Hiroki Matsukata) plays the role as if he was a loudmouth Osaka punk – quite the contrast to the lovable blind masseur or even the pervert monk played by Tomisaburo Wakayama in the later Wicked Priest series. It simply does not work as the character is irritating and the storyline an incoherently told mess. In brief, it’s about a bad man re-discovering humanity via woman and child while clashing with the yakuza and being hunted by a man called “Death” who has his own dark past, all set against the backdrop of industrialization. I was at the verge of falling asleep when an unexpected sight of a woman running with her boobs out, and the following comment about how it suck to be blind at a time like that, woke me up halfway into the film. Another highlight comes in form of a powerful ending shot accompanied by Toshiaki Tsushima’s (The Street Fighter, Battles Without Honor and Humanity) score. The rest isn’t worth it.

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Bullet Terror

November 21, 2018

Bullet Terror (恐怖の弾痕) (1957)

A young judo expert (Akira Takarada) assumes a white collar job in a night club company that is being harassed by the yakuza and their sword for hire bodyguard (Jun Tazaki), whose father was once upon a time killed by the judo guy’s good-for-nothing father (talk about coincidences) – an incident that has stained the decent son’s life and career ever since. The new employer soon turns out to be no better – their real business is revealed to be narcotics. Mildly entertaining b-action film with a couple of judo vs. sword duels. The storyline and characterization are purely programmer stuff, though, and some scenes are badly dated (e.g. long episode featuring a time bomb ticking in the clueless hero’s car while he’s chasing the bad guy).

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The Decoy

November 21, 2018

The Decoy (脱獄囚) (1957)

Small scale, widescreen Toho thriller about a detective (Ryo Ikebe) whose wife is being targeted by an escaped prisoner (Makoto Sato). The detective decides to go with it and use his wife as a decoy. Although slightly hampered by the usual hostage clichés (the ladies in peril bungle up every escape attempt), it’s a solid film and the second half is quite good with Sato invading the neighbor’s house, taking them as hostage and stalking his target from distance. Ikebe makes a good old school lead, a bit too handsome for the role but the unshaven beard compensates.

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Onsen Ponbiki Jochu

August 17, 2018

Onsen Ponbiki Jochu (温泉ポン引女中) (1969)

The leaps of development in loosening censorship, and pushing the envelope in terms of what was acceptable in a major studio film, were huge in the late 60s and early 70s Japan. The first Hot Springs Geisha (1968) film, a harmless resort sex comedy and one of Teruo Ishii’s dullest efforts, only managed to sneak in one or two brief topless shots. This sequel, which hit the screens 12 months later, by first time director Misao Arai, manages more in its opening credits scene alone, which consists entirely of a peeping Tom zooming into bathing girls’ breasts for the viewer’s pleasure.

The somewhat serviceable storyline is about an elder sister (Mitsuko Aoi) employed by a ‘sexual-services-ok’ hot spring coming at odds with her cool girl sister (virginal Ishii muse Masumi Tachibana) who establishes a competing club with her hoodlum man (Shinrichiro Hayashi). Of course it’s not long until gangster Toru Abe also wants his share of the pie.

Pretty girls in bikinis. And quite often without bikini. What’s not to like? For once, the formula actually works. It’s a skin flick in and out, but thankfully it’s one with an enjoyably laidback swing and drenched 60s aesthetics. And just when you’re about to get a bit tired of it, the film throws at you a really bizarre nude party scene with Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh dancers! Which is soon followed by a super violent shocker of a scene that makes you wonder if the filmmakers suddenly realized they should have gone the Joy of Torture (1968) route instead.

Yes, while the comparisons to Russ Mayer’s masterpiece Beneath the Valley of the Dolls (1970) may be unjustified quality wise, you cannot quite help but to see some parallels here. And yes, director Arai did work on The Joy of Torture (as writer), as did half of the other people involved in the production, in case you were wondering.

Not exactly a great film overall, and it does have its boring bits here and there, but plenty more fun that you might expect. This is as good if not better than the two Norifumi Suzuki directed instalments (parts 4 and 5) which followed with a bit of delay.

Finally for a bit of name dropping, the lovely and underappreciated Yumiko Katayama who had starred in Ishii’s Inferno of Torture plays one of the hot spring girls. And the opening reels features everyone’s favourite toruko Osman Yusuf (Toei’s man to go for whenever they needed a sleazy foreigner) as one of the customers.

It’s worth noting that while this film is the second part in the Hot Springs Geisha series, it’s also billed as the 7th film in the Eros series in the original trailer. The first Hot Springs Geisha film, in turn, was part 2 in the Abnormal Love series which had been initiated with History of the Shogun’s Harem (1968) and continued with The Joy of Torture (1969), Orgies of Edo (1969), Shameless: Abnormal and Abusive Love (1969) and Inferno of Torture (1969). It’s possible that the Eros series and the better known Abnormal Love are the same thing, and Toei just decided to alter the title on the run.

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Shogoro Nishimura Early Films

January 25, 2018

Director Shogoro Nishimura was best known for his Roman Porno films, which have always enjoyed immense commercial popularity despite their modest cinematic merits. However, before Nishimura became a Roman Porno vending machine, he was a yakuza and youth film director at Nikkatsu. Those early films, which account to 14 in total, made between 1963 and 1970, reveal a far more interesting filmmaker than the gun-for-hire that most people know him as.

Nishimura passed away in August 2017. In January 2018 Cinema Vera in Tokyo held a commemorative 14 film Nishimura retrospective, titled “Re-Evaluating Shogoro Nishimura”, which included eight of his Roman Porno films as well as six early features from his mainstream years. The latter remain difficult to see as hardly any of them have been released on DVD. Let’s take a closer look at the films screened in the retrospective.

Nishimura’s directorial debut was the 1963 film The Gambling Monk (Keirin shônin gyôjyôki / 競輪上人行状記), based on a screenplay by Shohei Imamura and Nobuyuki Onishi. The film is a biting black comedy/drama about a mischievous middle school teacher (Shoichi Ozawa) who becomes a gambling addicted monk following his brother’s death. He tries to take care of his family temple business, but gets mixed up in bicycle betting, alcohol and desperate women.

Although not a film tailored for my personal tastes, fans of Imamura and Japanese 60s new wave ought to be in for a threat. The mix of dark drama, comedy and social satire aiming to spark some controversy is especially reminiscent of Imamura’s films. It is then perhaps not surprising that, despite being adored by critics, the film bombed in theatres upon its release and brought Nishimura’s career to an instant end for three years. It remains a forgotten film waiting to be discovered.

Nishimura got his second chance at directing in 1966 with the excellent Sun Tribe film Kaettekita ookami (帰ってきた狼). The story kicks off when a mixed blood, misunderstood loner (Ken Yamauchi) drifts back into a small seaside town where he slew a man years ago. Around the same time a super hot yacht girl Rika, who is a bit of a spoiled brat, sails to the shores. She has instant hot for him, and her bloated self ego takes a hit when he says he just digs her yacht. Then there is the film’s actual protagonist (Junichi Kagiyama), a cowardish but decent guy and the only rational one of the bunch, as well as some local teen hoods giving everyone trouble.

Kaettekita ookami is almost everything a good Sun Tribe film should be: yachts, motor boats, guitars, fights and burning teen passion, all packed into 78 minutes. The characters are excellent, there’s a constant aura of energy to Nishimura’s direction, and most importantly the Taiwanese-Japanese actress Judy Ongg is just amazingly hot and badass as Rika. When director Nishimura, in an unrelated interview, expressed his regret that much of the Roman Porno genre that later employed him may be problematic from a female perspective, I wondered if he truly cared. But seeing movies like this, with show stealing female characters, I can believe he really meant what he said. Fantastic film!

Note: I cannot find an English title for Kaettekita ookami anywhere. The Japanese title translates as “Return of the Wolf”, referring to the character played by Ken Yamauchi.

Following Kaettekita ookami, Nishimura helmed a number of other films I have not had the pleasure of seeing. However, his 1967 effort Burning Nature (Hana wo kuu mushi / 花を喰う蟲) offers further evidence that Nishimura is indeed remembered for the wrong films. This one starts out as a breezy youth film but soon morphs into a study of greed and moral corruption as a wildcat girl (Taichi Kiwako) runs into a manipulative “businessman” (Hideaki Nitani) who promises her a career as a model. She finds success due to her good looks, but also learns that that is exactly her worth the in the modern world.

It’s a stylish film and features a terrific leading performance by Taichi Kiwako. Eiji Go, an actor best known for portraying crazed yakuza, is also very good as a young man in love with the protagonist. Meiko Kaji has a small supporting role. The film’s only problem is that it can’t quite keep the wonderful momentum it establishes during the superb first half till the very end.

It’s also worth mentioning as a piece of trivia that Burning Nature opened as a double feature with Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a film that ended Suzuki’s career at Nikkatsu.

Not all early Nishimura films were great, though. Tokyo Streetfighting (Tokyo Shigai sen / 東京市街戦) (1967) is a case in point. Tetsuya Watari’s theme song is the only good thing about this half-arsed Nikkatsu yakuza action film. It’s yet another tale of people coping in the ruins of Tokyo in the post WW2 Japan, with a couple of good men (Watari, Joe Shishido) standing against the exploitative Korean gangsters. Toei also made several films like this, some of them good (True Account of Ginza Tortures, 1973), some as bad as this (Third Generation Boss, 1974; Kobe International Gang, 1975).

With its uninspired performances, routine execution and a programmer storyline aiming to connect with the more sentimental and nationalistically minded viewers (there even an orphan boy and his blind sister suffering in the slums!), Tokyo Streetfighting offers little to be impressed about. Even the final street war / machinegun massacre fails to thrill, despite its unbelievable body count. A thoroughly underwhelming effort by Nishimura.

Another example of lesser efforts in Nishimura’s filmography is Biographies of Killers (Shikakû rêtsuden / 刺客列伝) (1967). Nikkatsu was in general best known for their contemporary films, however, they also produced scores of period yakuza films. I am far from well educated in Nikkatsu’s yakuza output, but compared to Toei’s ninkyo films, this movie at least is somewhat grittier in philosophy (as suggested by the title), leaving less room for chivalry, stoic pathos and manly bonding than you’d find in your average Ken Takakura or Koji Tsuruta film.

Sentimental drama is not avoided though: the film features Nikkatsu’s regular wallflower Chieko Matsubara as a young woman with a missing brother and a sick kid to take care of.

Hideki Takahashi is the main character in Biographies of Killers, a yakuza joining a gang of killers to make some money. He later runs into Matsubara, who doesn’t know he’s a yakuza and indirectly related to his missing brother who has been killed. There’s also a common yakuza film theme with poor workers being targeted by the yakuza. The storyline isn’t especially interesting and the lack of a strong plot hurts, but Nishimura’s direction is pretty good, often vitalizing quiet scenes with emotional tension.

Nishimura had a far more interesting screenplay to work with in Yakuza Native Ground (Yakuza bangaichi / やくざ番外地) (1969), which is a very good modern day set transitional era (ninkyo/jitsuroku) yakuza film. Tetsuro Tamba stars as a businessman-like gangster who builds his gang of youngsters willing to do the dirty work for him, including a psychotic hothead Jiro Okazaki. Tamba is pals with Kei Sato, a slightly more righteous boss in a rival gang, likewise leaving the quarrels to the youngsters while trying remain friends with Tamba.

Yakuza Native Ground takes a while to get going with some seemingly random side plots, which however all come together big time when Tamba’s sister falls in love with a young man associated with the rival gang, and then all hell starts breaking loose, leading to a well orchestrated final massacre. There’s also an interesting mix of ninkyo-like honour themes and jitsuroku shades of gray, especially evident in Tamba’s well written character. Nishimura’s character direction is effective and it’s always a pleasure to see Tamba in starring roles.

Films like Yakuza Native Ground and Kaettekita ookami make one wonder what other cool films are still waiting to be discovered in Nishimura’s 1960s filmography. There’s hoping that one day all of them will be available for viewing. It might be a bit of a stretch to declare Nishimura a as forgotten master, but he was certainly an interesting filmmaker capable of delivering enjoyable, even exhilarating pictures when given a good screenplay.

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Majoran

November 29, 2017

Majoran (魔女卵) (1984)

Exciting delinquent girl drama is in equal parts a youth film and a blazing gangster movie set to “live” music à la Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. First timer Yuko Watanabe stars as an Osaka bad girl who’s introduced to the world of indie rock bands by a friendly biker gay hanging out in a small a rock bar. The film was cast with open auditions, most of the sukeban girls being obvious real delinquents with wonderfully coarse Osaka dialects. The film is also packed with 80s heavy metal bands and rock stars with mindblowing names (Mad Rocker, Jesus, Christ etc.)

What sets Majoran apart from Streets of Fire is how it’s rooted in reality unlike Hill’s pop culture fantasy. There’s a wonderfully touching scene at the end – spoiler warning I guess – where the heroine, disappointed by her ex-boyfriend who’s relocated to Tokyo and cut his rock star hair in preparation for salaryman life, lets him know just what she thinks of him. She then rides back to Osaka on a night bus alone. The world changes and friends grow adults, but a couple of rebels will never give up. Well, they will eventually, but the film ends before that, on a high note on the streets of Osaka, on a motorcycle, with director Seiji Izumi cross cutting to a gig by heavy metal girl band Majoran as the credits roll.

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On the Road

November 29, 2017

On the Road (オン・ザ・ロード) (1982)

Pink film director Seiji Izumi had 49 skin flicks under his belt when he helmed this motorcycle cop flick, his first mainstream release. Largely forgotten since its theatrical run in 1982 (a double feature with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Transfer Student), the film might be heading towards small cult reputation since its re-discovery a few years ago by a small arthouse theatre in Yokohama that played it in 35mm for more than a year.

Hiroyuki Watanabe, in his debut role, stars as young, eccentric loner of a Tokyo biker cop. The film’s opening chase leaves a bystander, a model called Reiko (Kumi Fujishima), injured when his bike hits her. Feeling quilt, he tracks her down months later, but she’s determined to start a new life in Okinawa and wishes not to see him. She hops in a car with her sister to drive through half of Japan to a port in Kyushu, while he, still in his uniform and riding his bike, is determined to follow her to the end of worlds. His superior (Hideo Murota) and half of the nation’s police force are trying to capture the renegade cop and avoid a public scandal while the lone rider grows reputation as a rebel hero of sorts.

The film features a fantastic concept, even though some of the drama is mediocre and the two female characters are poorly written and cast. Not really an action film (despite the poster that would have you believe otherwise), but there’s a fair bit of stylish bike and chase footage as well.