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The Blossom and the Sword

April 2, 2017

The Blossom and the Sword (Nihon kyoka den) (1973)

Tai Kato’s early 20th century set yakuza epic about an ordinary merchant girl (Yoko Maki) who crosses paths with an assassin (Tetsuya Watari). The encounter sends her to jail as a suspected accomplice. Years later she marries a yakuza boss, whose gang is affiliated with working class people. The boss is wounded by the same assassin, who however has a change of heart when his own boss (Bin Amatsu) turns out a rotten bastard, and he falls in love with the woman.

There are some slow patches and unnecessary humour during the first half – the film was released in two halves with an intermission – but the second half is tremendous. Although Kato is more interested in characters and revealing the oppression of common people than filming stylised yakuza mayhem, he ends the film with a fight scene featuring one of the most striking image compositions in recent memory, with fatally wounded Watari and Amatsu fighting for their lives in the background while another dying man is crawling right towards the camera and spitting blood.

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Kanto Woman Yakuza

April 2, 2017

Kanto Woman Yakuza (Kanto onna yakuza) (1968)

Nikkatsu Noir meets Girl Gang Films at Daiei. Michio Yasuda, one of the studio’s few female action stars,  leads a group of three girls who make their living playing on the clubs. They soon run into trouble with the yakuza. The film has a phenomenally energetic opening with great music, fantastic cinematography and Yasuda kicking ass. It’s just a shame the storyline gradually takes a more conservative turn with emphasis shifted towards the male characters, who do the dirty work in the climax. It’s still a very stylish film with superb cinematography and amazing moments where director Akira Inoue sets scenes to a blazing rock score. The film also does great job capturing the streets and clubs populated by the lower class. This is a small discovery, although more noirish and down to earth than the likes of Stray Cat Rock that would make a passable comparison point.

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Black Panther Bitch M

April 2, 2017

Black Panther Bitch M (Kuroi mehyo M) (1974)

Reiko Ike stars in this Nikkatsu produced action film, which came out just the right time. Toei’s Pinky Violence genre was starting to wane out while karate films were the new thing. Black Panther Bitch M was a bit of both. The film hit the screens two weeks before Toei’s Sister Street Fighter opened.

Ike is a ninja trained assassin ordered by an invisible shadow organization to take out businessman Mikio Narita, who is protected by yakuza goons. Limited production values and some slow patches set this apart from Toei’s best action films, but there also are some atmospheric parts and nice bits of ultra violence as Ike takes out her opponents using knives and sadistic martial arts moves. Ike was no karate pro, but stunt doubles and fun ideas like POV action compensated enough. Ike also looks absolutely gorgeous in her frequently malfunctioning blouse that clearly wasn’t intended to be used while engaging in hand-to-hand battle.

Supporting cast is mostly Toei actors, including karate master Masashi Ishibashi, who has one fight scene in the film, and who also brought his acquaintance Gogen Yamaguchin in as martial arts advisor. Director Koretsugu Kurahara was one of Nikkatsu’s rising action film talents from before the studio shifted to Roman Porno. Even during the Roman Porno period his films were often influenced by action movies (e.g. Sex Rider: Wet Highway, 1972). Bad Girl Mako (1971) and Black Panther Bitch M are his only mainstream action films.

There is a fun story in the dvd booklet about Ike’s involvement in the production. One reason why she accepted Nikkatsu’s offer  was that she was getting a little bit tired for her “sex queen” image at Toei, and was promised that this would be a mainstream film with no sex scenes in it. Ike later found out the filmmakers had added a hotel room sex scene into the screenplay, and she got majorly upset. She had them rewrite the scene (into a non-sex nude scene) and relocate it to a “safer location” on a rooftop

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Oh Wonderful Utamaro

April 2, 2017

Oh Wonderful Utamaro (Shikijo Toruko Nikki) (1974).

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was best known for martial arts (Karate Bull Fighter) and Pinky Violence (Delinquent Girl Boss) films but he also directed a couple of erotic films in the mid 70s. This one is a mildly amusing sex comedy mainly remembered for starring American actress Sharon Kelly aka Colleen Brennan.

Kelly plays an American nymphomaniac who literally falls off the sky (with a parachute). She’s supposed to be picked up by a local yakuza gang, but “Porno Broker” Tatsuo Umemiya and his pal Gajiro Sato gets to her first. Umemiya then makes her work in his Turkish bath, which she doesn’t mind at all. In fact, she does eight men on her first night and comes asking for more. Poor Umemiya has trouble “getting it up” (or to be more precise, it usually gets up on the wrong moment, e.g. when bad guys are trying to kill him) and can’t help.

Kelly is obviously the main attraction here, whether you mean it literally or as a cinematic curiosity. It was not entirely rare to see foreign stars in Japanese sexploitation films in the 70’s though. Toei also imported Sandra Julien (Modern Porno Tale, 1971; Tokugawa Sex Ban, 1972) from France, Christina Lindberg (Sex and Fury, 1973; Journey to Japan, 1973) from Sweden, and even Harry Reems (Harry and the Geisha Girl, 1978) from USA. Nikkatsu even commissioned some Roman Porno films to be shot in Sweden by Japanese filmmakers utilizing fully Swedish casts.

Oh Wonderful Utamaro was Kelly’s only Japanese film. She was already a familiar face for Japanese audiences thanks to Teenage Bride (1970), A Scream in the Streets (1973) and The Dirty Mind of Young Sally (1973), which had been released in Japan in 1973-1974. She had also been covered in TV variety show called 11 PM quite a few times.

The film itself is a pretty ridiculous affair with hippies, yakuzas, lots of (boring) sex, silly comedy, Kelly, and a bit of extremely mediocre action at the end. It’s somewhat less fun than it sounds like. The best supporting character is an English speaking hippie dad taking care of a baby and having sex (at the same time) with Pinky Violence co-star Harumi Tajima who was probably more famous for her large breasts than her acting skills. Speaking of English, Kelly reads her lines in her native tongue with few sentences of (understandable) Japanese here and there. The rest of the cast speaks Japanese with a few sentences of (understandable) English here and there. Nice.

A fun curiosity, but don’t kill yourself if you never get to see it.

I saw the film at a Kazuhiko Yamaguchi retrospective in Tokyo in 2015. The screening was preceded by a video greeting from Kelly. She recalled the ridiculous costumes, the language barrier thanks to which she had no idea who she was supposed to be shooting at when they put a machine gun in her hands, and the fact that she found director Yamaguchi more attractive than her co-star Umemiya. Umemiya famously disagreed and claimed in an old interview that he and Kelly got along so well they were having real sex in the film. The claim most likely has no base in reality.

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A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse

April 2, 2017

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse (Bakeneko Toruko furo) (1975)

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Delinquent Girl Boss) was widely considered one of the least talented Toei directors of his time. He’s been ridiculed by critics, audiences and theatres alike. When Laputa Asagaya ran a retrospective of Yamaguchi’s films in Tokyo in 2015, the catch copy was “Message? Theme? What are those?”  Yet, the man helmed some of the most outrageous films of the 70s. Here is one of them, a 1975 cursed cat erotic horror flick loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe!

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse stars Nikkatsu starlet Naomi Tani as an abused wife sold to a brothel to cover her husband’s (Hideo Murota) debts. The deceitful husband is actually behind it all, and in cahoots with the brothel owner who is his lover. Tani discovers the truth and gets whipped to death (terribly ironic considering she survived all her Roman Porno SM flicks alive). However, the dead woman’s soul won’t overlook the injustice.

If that sounded like a spoiler, I’ve only described the film’s beginning. Once Tani is out of the picture, the character’s less charismatic younger sister (Misa Ohara) enters the storyline. She will be the film’s focus from here on, although there’s less fun to be had about her detective story than Hideo Murota occasional sleaze bag antics.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is a real Frankenstein job. Masahiro Kakefuda (Horrors of Malformed Men, 1969) and Nobuaki Nakajima’s (Tokyo Deep Throat, 1975) script steals ideas from Poe’s The Black Cat. The film takes place in a Turkish Bathhouse, a popular topic for Toei’s erotic films and documentaries at the time. The bathhouse, populated by bare breasted girls, doesn’t look too different from the Shogun’s palace seen in Teruo Ishii and Norifumi Suzuki’s films. Star Naomi Tani was of course borrowed from Nikkatsu and together with her came the SM film elements.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse also launched director Yamaguchi’s unrelated series of animal themed films. In this film Tani’s vengeful soul finds a new body in a black cat that begins terrorizing the evil doers. Yamaguchi later directed Karate Bull Fighter (1975), Karate Bear Fighter (1975), Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), and Which is Stronger: Karate or the Tiger (1976), all of which were martial arts films where man fought the fore-mentioned beasts. Bizarrely awesome.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is at its best, and weakest, in the long finale where the vengeful cat flies around slaughtering her enemies and eventually turns into a runway cast member of the Cats musical. It’s all positively insane, but any real horror is long gone by this point. The poor cat, which is being thrown around the room by the crew, doesn’t look even remotely menacing. The ending also pales in comparison to Yamaguchi’s later movie Wolfguy, which was even more insane and benefitted from a better technical execution. Indeed, despite being a movie of different genre, A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse feels something of a dress rehearsal for Wolfguy, only with less violence and no karate.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse  is 90 minutes of boobs, violence, supernatural horror that isn’t scary, funky score, occasional apocalyptic sunsets, and bloody cat attacks. It’s a fun film and never boring, but it isn’t quite as far-out as one would wish, especially when compared to the amazing Wolfguy. Consider it Yamaguchi’s House-lite, Toei Porno style.

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Car 33 Doesn’t Answer

September 3, 2015

Car 33 Doesn’t Answer (33 gosha otonashi) (1955)

Terrific, gritty crime film follows two policemen (Ryo Ikebe & Takashi Shimura) on a very long Christmas night as they pick up drunks, hookers, junkies and killers. They finally run into professional criminals who highjack their patrol car and take them as hostage.

This is a realistic, atmospheric film that beautifully captures the post-war streets of Tokyo on film while also telling a good story with excellent characters. It’s also a surprisingly dark film for its era, for example featuring children shooting drugs and policemen discovering a drunken man has slaughtered his entire family, children included.

Akira Kurosawa’s crime film masterpiece High & Low (1963) makes for a good comparison; however, it’s remarkable how much time director Senkichi Taniguchi spends documenting the policemen’s everyday work and encounters with random people before turning on the plot gear. The film’s only weakness is some under cranking at the end, which seems a little dated from modern perspective. A rarely seen gem entirely worthy of a Criterion release. Unfortunately the film has never been released on DVD even in Japan.

Here’s some publicity materials displayed in Laputa Asagaya, where the film screened as a part of actor Ryo Ikebe retrospective in summer 2015.

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The Big Gamblers of the Amazon

August 23, 2015

The Big Gamblers of the Amazon (Amazon mushuku: Seiki no daimaoh) (1961)

New York, 1961. A worldwide gambling committee gathers. The industry is in recession. Japan is seen as the most promising new market. Enter Amazon Kenji (Chiezo Kataoka), a homeless gunman and master gambler (mostly because he cheats) from the jungle, wearing poncho and a huge Mexican hat, who introduces himself by shooting a cigar from a random guy’s hand. He’s going to be the first one to sink his teeth in the new market. But before he gets there, but he’s joined by an Americanized bastard Gold Rush Kumakichi and Jack the Ace, the son of a Japanese geisha on Paris. Once in Japan, the trio is hired by a Chinese gambling lord who is also running a drug business.

This is an insane action comedy gem by Shigero Ozawa, the director of The Street Fighter (1974). It’s also a fascinating mix of new and old; the type of colourful film sets and costumes from Toei’s lavish Kyoto productions combined with mad energy that was running wild at Toei’s contemporary Tokyo studios. The film also includes strong western influences and a climatic shoot out where the hero guns down at least 60 bad guys. It only makes sense that halfway into the storyline the protagonist is actually locked up in a mental hospital. It is a little bit bizarre to see veteran actor Kataoka, who starred in countless samurai films since the 1920s, in such a madcap role.

For a film packed with foreign supporting characters (most of whom get killed in the final shoot-out) it’s of course a bit ridiculous that everyone is speaking Japanese! The film fully acknowledges this and even makes fun of it. In one of the better jokes we have French characters, who were speaking nothing but Japanese until then, suddenly switch to French language to plot a sneaky plan. When the French speaking Jack the Ace overhears them, one of the French characters shouts out “dammit, he understood us” – in Japanese! And this is how the language switches back to Japanese.

It’s a shame this film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. I was lucky enough to catch it in 35mm in a Toei Tokyo retrospective in Tokyo. Amazon Kenji is a lost 1960s cult hero waiting to be discovered by the world! A sequel, in which Kataoka stars as a homeless gambler from The Himalayas, was released later in 1961. Apparently the sequel also contains a yeti!