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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.

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Sonny Chiba Reviews

April 6, 2017

A bit of self-promotion here. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m also running a Sonny Chiba review blog called Sketches of Chiba with tons of reviews of classics as well as very rare films and TV shows. The blog can be found here:

https://sketchesofchiba.wordpress.com/

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Monster Woman ’88

April 6, 2017

Monster Woman ’88 (Youjo densetsu ’88) (1988)

Roman Porno director Noboru Tanaka’s last movie is a trendy mainstream fantasy / mystery / love story with video game programmers as its main characters! A dead woman begins communicating with a young video game programmer via his computer. What’s going on? This is one of those movies that keep your interest from beginning to end without ever being especially good. It’s strictly a mainstream affair without any exploitation, but the programmer angle is pretty cool indeed. There’s also an amusing otaku love story side plot with the guys hiring a pretty girl despite her complete lack of programming skills. They hired her mainly because of her large breasts.

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Crest of the Wolf

April 6, 2017

Crest of the Wolf (Ookami no monsho) (1973)

This was the first of the two live action films based on Kazumasa Hirai’s Wolfguy manga franchise. There were two Wolfguy mangas being published simultaneously: “Wolfguy” and “Adult Wolfguy”, aimed at youth and adult readers respectively. This movie, produced by Toho, was based on the former, which followed its werewolf hero as a bullied high school boy. It’s a quite an imaginative and often atmospheric, if sometimes cheesy story that suffers from a couple of slow patches despite the wonderfully short 77 minute running time. Young Yusaku Matsuda does his feature film debut as a villain.

Although the source material was aimed at younger readers, the films is quite bloody and features copious amounts of nudity, especially by the hero’s kind teacher (Yoko Ichiji). As enjoyable as it is, the film pales in comparison to the incredible Toei adaptation Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), which was based on the “Adult Wolfguy” manga and upped the sex and violence to a whole new level.

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Karate Wars

April 2, 2017

Karate Wars (Karate daisenso) (1978)

One of the few Japanese karate films made by some other studio than Toei, in this case, Shochiku. The film’s production background is actually more interesting than the movie itself. The film was produced by Ikki Kajiwara, the author of the comic books Karate Kiba and Karate for Life, which Toei had made into feature films with Sonny Chiba. It was intended as a starring project for Kajiwara’s brother Hisao Maki, who was a student of Masutatsu Oyama. The film failed to make Maki a star (for very obvious reasons) but he would later contribute to cinema as a screenwriter and novelist (e.g. Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A)

The film was shot in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand, utilizing many local martial artists. It’s also spoken in various languages, including Japanese, English, Chinese and Thai. Unfortunately it’s a pretty poor film with an unremarkable storyline about a Japanese martial artist (Maki) who convinced to travel to Hong Kong and Thailand where he fights local fighters. It takes about half an hour before anything happens, but once the film moves to foreign locations it picks up some pace and remains watchable enough thanks to a steady delivery of action. Most of the fights happen when Maki is ambushed time after another on the streets.

Maki is amusingly wooden in the lead role, especially as an actor. His fights suffer from the (modern) Steven Seagal syndrome where he barely needs to do anything but walk around and the opponents drop dead. Although there is certain realism to the fight moves, he looks surprisingly slow compared to the likes of Sonny Chiba. While martial arts aficionados may get something out of it, the film is solely lacking in the fun department.

The film was set for a R1 DVD release a decade ago but the company went bankrupt before the disc came out. Shochiku released the film on DVD in Japan (without subs) a few years ago. The original trailer on the disc calls the movie “The 3rd film in the Chijo saikyo no karate (The Strongest Karate) series”. That’s a little confusing since the first two are documentary films, and this is a work of fiction. Also, the title of Karate Wars (Karate daisenso) makes no reference to the Chijo saikyo no karate series. I think the ad team probably came up with that connection just to sell the film. I don’t think anyone actually considers it a part of the series.