This site focuses on Japanese cinema, but Japanese cinema is far from the only world cinema I watch. Sometimes I like to highlight other films when they have some crossover with Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese actors and directors. The South Korean WW2 drama The Battleship Island (2017), from director Ryoo Seung-wan, is just such a film. Set in 1945 on the island of Hashima (nicknamed ‘Gunkanjima‘ or ‘Battleship Island’ for its distinctive profile on the horizon), it follows a number of Korean conscripts pressed into forced labour in the island’s coal mines and ‘comfort stations’ by the Imperial Japanese authorities. As WW2 draws to a close and the authorities become increasingly desperate and brutal, the Korean workers hatch a plan to escape. Though the escape attempt is a work of fiction, the island itself, its coal mines, and the brutal conditions the workers lived under are all historical.
Some time in the last few years I got a lot less picky about what kind of films I would watch. I think it happened when I started massively ramping up the number of films I watch in general. While I might sink tens of hours into a game and would want that time to be well spent, a film is usually over in a couple of hours, and if I didn’t like it, I’d probably be watching another film later that week – perhaps even later that day. And as I’ve written before, even if I walk away from a film disappointed, there’s probably still something that I can take from it. Wolf Guy (1975) is just such a film. I wanted something ‘special’ for the 100th film I was going to watch in 2018 and after spending some time trying to decide on an unseen classic or an old favourite, I decided I’d procrastinated enough on the decision and just grabbed the most bonkers-looking Arrow Video release off my shelf that I’d yet to watch.
Since I started Kino 893, I’ve watched a lot of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as well as ‘contemporary’ films from the early 2000s onwards, but with a few exceptions I haven’t seen many films from the 1980s or 1990s. I’ve been meaning to rectify that, in part by digging into the filmographies of Juzo Itami and Takashi Miike. Miike began directing in the early ‘90s and has been incredibly prolific, typically directing multiple films per year for most of his career and only recently starting to dial it back – while still directing at least a couple of films a year. Blade of the Immortal, released last year, is widely described as his 100th feature film (though it seems to more accurately be his 100th IMDB directorial credit, which includes a number of non-feature credits) and he has already released two films since then. Rewinding to 1999, he was achieving far more recognition, moving from straight-to-video to theatrical releases. Dead or Alive (1999) was one of six movies he released that year; a stylish, violent, provocative yakuza movie starring Riki Takeuchi (Battle Royale II, Yakuza 0) and Sho Aikawa (Zebraman).
Seijun Suzuki was a prolific director. For Nikkatsu alone, he directed 40 pictures from his debut in the ‘50s to his dismissal after 1967’s Branded to Kill. Overlooked at the time, Youth of the Beast (1963) is now recognised as a turning point for his personal style. It is a film oversaturated with style, as if Suzuki approached every scene – every frame – with a playful, or perhaps unhinged, effort to make it interesting. He flips between black and white – with a single splash of colour – and full colour production. He pans the camera across a noisy cabaret bar, and abruptly cuts to a soundproof room, the volume dropping precipitously. A scene transition is smothered by a fan dancer. Conversations take place to a roiling backdrop of black and white movie footage from the office of a movie theatre. In one bonkers blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, star Jo Shishido (as Jo Mizuno) walks past a movie theatre covered in Nikkatsu bunting, complete with portraits of all the Nikkatsu stars – himself among them. All this contributes to a lively film that while perhaps not good is nevertheless great.
I find Japanese films to review all over the place. Some are old favourites I already had in my collection, others are from the growing catalogue of cult and classic films from niche Blu-Ray publishers, and some just happen to pop up on streaming services like Netflix or Sky Cinema. It’s the latter where I’m most likely to see something unusual that I might otherwise have missed – I’m probably going to pick up every Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie I can find, but won’t necessarily see the latest contemporary drama from a director I’ve never encountered. That’s how I ended up watching Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada. A bleak study of human misery, it follows the family of metalworker Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) as an old acquaintance re-enters his life after coming out of prison. Inevitably, this disrupts the family’s already fragile existence and a series of terrible events ensue.
The early 1970s were a golden age for gangster cinema. In the West, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In the East, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973). And then, there was The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack’s fusion of both. Developed from an idea by Leonard Schrader, an American expat living in Japan, and scripted by his brother Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Robert Towne (script doctor for The Godfather), it follows several American characters who get tangled up in Japan’s criminal underworld. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, a former US military policeman during the Allied occupation of Japan, who returns to Japan at the behest of his friend Tanner. It seems the yakuza have kidnapped Tanner’s daughter after a shady deal gone awry and Kilmer’s connections are the only way to get her back. That means going back to Tokyo and getting in touch with a yakuza named Tanaka (Ken Takakura, The Bullet Train) indebted to Kilmer. Heavily inspired by contemporary Japanese films watched by the Schraders and no doubt hoping to cash in on the success of The Godfather via “Japan’s mafia”, The Yakuza works surprisingly well as a slow-burn crime thriller that leans heavily on its then-exotic setting.
This week, I’m turning back the clock to the late 1970s and the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Though of course I’m a fan of several of his later films under Studio Ghibli, I’m surprisingly poorly versed in his earlier work, and this classic had somehow escaped my attention. With it recently resurfacing on Netflix UK, when better to give it a chance? Cagliostro follows master thief Lupin and his accomplice Jigen as they trace the source of counterfeit bank notes to the titular castle in the Principality of Cagliostro before getting involved in breaking up the forced marriage of the kingdom’s young princess to its evil count.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a fairly prolific director and, at the time of writing, I have only seen four of his many films. His work seems to be getting some new attention here in the UK with a slew of releases from Arrow Video and Eureka! Masters of Cinema. The latest entry is Cure (1997), a crime thriller with a strong undercurrent of horror. It stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, 13 Assassins) as Detective Takabe, a haggard cop following serial copycat crimes. In each case, the killer carves an X into the victim’s throat, but no one can work out why the killers are choosing this very particular methodology when that information was never made public. Along with psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), Takabe pursues increasingly unusual explanations for the phenomena.
Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
Where New Battles Without Honour and Humanity was essentially a remake of Kinji Fukasaku’s own earlier film, in The Boss’s Head (1975) the director returns with an original story that nevertheless reunites much of his earlier cast. Bunta Sugawara stars as Kuroda, a wanderer who takes the fall for a murder on the understanding that when he gets out of jail, the Owada crime family will take him on-board and pay handsomely for his service. When his heroin junkie contact (Tsutomu Yamazaki, A Taxing Woman) in the family lets him down, Kuroda stops at nothing to get what he feels he deserves.