Portrait of Hell (Shiro Toyoda, Japan, 1969)

In medieval Japan poverty and famine ravage the land. Farmers and peasants starve while the lords in their courts live high on the hog. A rebellious Korean artist named Yoshihide (Tatsuya Nakadai) witnesses the death of one such peasant at the hands of the tyrant Lord Hosokawa (Kinnosuke Nakamura) and creates a painting of the dead man cursing Hosokowa with his dying breath that’s so vivid it panics the tyrant into visions of his ghost. Hosokowa retaliates by ordering Yoshihide to paint a mural praising his benevolence on the wall of the court temple. However the artist refuses. But after Hosokawa seizes Yoshihide’s daughter Yoshika (Yoko Naito) and turns her into his concubine Yoshihide resolves to paint a portrait of Hell and make Hosokawa and his monstrously pampered lifestyle the centerpiece of his mural.

There’s a blunt force and macabre tinge to Portrait of Hell reminiscent of some of Kaneto Shindo’s best work. It pitches two men of iron will – a Lord and his vassal – against one another in a titanic struggle to reveal the truth of the world around them. The sharply written script paints neither Yoshihide nor Hosokawa as entirely good or entirely bad. Although our sympathy naturally gravitates toward Yoshihide (because at first he seems to be the film’s conscience) he’s also a harsh father who locks his own daughter up because her boyfriend is Japanese and thinks nothing of torturing an assistant with snakes as inspiration for his mural. As an artist Yoshihide’s instincts are spot on but in almost every other respect he’s a fairly awful human being. His determination to provoke Hosokawa when he suggests the Lord sit for his painting in his personal carriage, a carriage Yoshihide tells him he intends to paint falling into hell its occupant consumed by flames is the one moment he goes too far and it backfires terribly. That moment depicts Nakamura’s tyrant at his worst but until then he exhibits a good-humoured – even tolerant – attitude toward Yoshihide’s defiance. This is a Lord who is less a monstrous villain than a pampered child who’s been fed a diet of lies by his retinue about the wisdom of his rule. Yet he’s also one who senses the truth of Yoshihide’s claims but is too paralyzed with terror to do anything about it. The tyrant can order Yoshihide to destroy his own work but the fearsome visions Yoshihide paints won’t leave Hosokawa’s world alone. The cushy existence of his court is plagued by ghostly apparitions, disrupted by an invasion of farmers and peasants wearing fearsome masks. An assassin who almost kills Hosokawa turns out to be Yoshika’s boyfriend, driven by desperation to join the uprising. In a neat touch the film pointedly elides a ghost Hosokawa sees with one of the masked invaders. Even the relative status of the Japanese lording it over their Korean subjects is undermined when Yoshihide points out that everything the Japanese have learned they took from the Koreans.

The truth is that if this world is hell then it’s a hell of both men’s making. In the film’s most horrific sequence Yoshihide’s daughter ends up burnt alive inside Hosokawa’s royal carriage because her father refuses to apologise to the Lord for suggesting the victim should be him. “I knew this would happen. I know both of you too well. May you all plunge into Hell” screams Yoshika as she goes up in flames. It’s a superbly staged sequence that moves from tension to terror to sheer horror – with both men shaken to the core at what their stubbornness and arrogance has caused – and then, in a delirious touch as Yasushi Akutagawa’s score swells optimistically over the image of Yoshika’s burning corpse, celebratory. Far from breaking Yoshihide this hideous sight confirms to him that he is indeed in Hell, that his instincts are right and that he will, therefore, prevail. Amazing sequence! Performances aside the film has two other major strengths. First, cinematographer Kazuo Yamada’s use of colour filters, subtle lighting effects, in camera superimpositions and exteriors shot on stylised studio sets evoke a parallel dimension where something nightmarish does indeed seem to lurk just beneath the surface. I think this why a supernatural twist at the end yet feels all of a piece with the preceding drama. And there’s a striking moment when Yoshika informs her father that the colony of Korean artists he works with have all been executed after being caught trying to escape the country by boat. We then see Yoshihide – in a strange b/w image – surveying the corpses strewn around the wreckage of their boat. It’s as if the normal boundaries of space and time have just dissolved around him. Second, Yasushi Akutagawa’s rousing score really embodies the implacable battle of wills going on here in which one man seeks to assert his view of the world over that of another. It’s a measure of Akutagawa’s skill that he’s able to take this melody and reuse it as the sweet yet otherworldly tune Yoshika’s boyfriend plays on his flute too woo her. Both may be doomed but in such scenes their love is the essential contrast to the mutually destructive antagonism of Yoshihide and Lord Hosokawa.

Cash Calls Hell (Hideo Gosha, Japan, 1966)

On the eve of his release from prison after killing a father and his child in a car crash Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai) accepts an offer of 15 million yen from his cellmate Sengoku to kill three men with no questions asked. But when the first of his intended victims is killed by a pair of strangers the dead man’s infant daughter Tomoe refuses to leave Oida’s side. Then Oida re-encounters Teruko, the widow of his hit and run victims, now reduced to working seedy clubs as a hostess. Losing another of his targets to the mysterious killers Oida’s encounter with the last surviving gang member reveals the truth behind an audacious haul of 30 million yen from a pair of Hong Kong drug dealers, a plot ingeniously devised by Sengoku himself who turns out to be using Oida to kill off the members of his own gang so he can make off with the loot. Confronting Sengoku and the killers in a violent showdown a mortally wounded Oida finds a way to make up for the suffering he’s caused Teruko and little Tomoe.

I enjoyed this. It’s a strikingly photographed b/w crime yarn with an easy to follow story and a cast of suitably tormented characters. In its setting of back alleys, strip clubs, scrapyards, boxing gyms, rooftops and industrial plants it’s very much in the mould of the kind of crime movies directors such as Teruo Ishii churned out early in their careers. If you’ve seen any of the Japanese imitations of American crime films of the late 50’s or early 60’s such as in the ‘Line’ series – Black Line (1960), Sexy Line (1961) and Fire Line (1961) – you should feel right at home with this. However there are also some notable differences. Yasuko Ono and Hideo Gosha’s screenplay imposes an unusually fatalistic theme on the action in the way it sets up virtually every character as a poor schlub desperate to escape the misery they’re mired in only to see all their efforts come to naught (Oida’s meeting with Sengoku’s girl Utako, the way he appears just after she kicks over a bin full of bones for a hungry dog, is an especially sharp visual metaphor for our hero’s plight). Oida, hired as a killer but unable to conceal the regret he feels at having destroyed Teruko’s family, comes to embody a redemptive theme that gets worked through to satisfying effect. When one of Sengoku’s men, Motoki, is murdered by the bad guys and his 8 year old child Tomoe stubbornly refuses to leave Oida’s side we sense right away that hired killer or no Oida must be a decent sort. But just you try telling that to Teruko, the widow forced into working seedy clubs as a hostess and who hasn’t lost any of her burning hatred for the man who destroyed her life when she literally collides with him in a back alley.

The bridge between these two turns out to be Tomoe (a scene stealing performance from this child actress) in a sublimely staged sequence wherein she, Teruko and Oida unexpectedly encounter each other on a snowy winter’s evening and the possibility of a solution to their respective woes – enhanced by Masaru Sato’s score, a melancholic sax and harpsichord combo never more evocatively used than here – presents itself. It’s all quite emotionally involving and the character’s personal issues combine effectively with the film’s hard boiled crime action as Oida pursues the three members of Sengoku’s gang only to find a pair of Hong Kong drug dealers (the leader played by the cadaverous actor Hideyo Amamoto, so good as the villainous mastermind in Kihachi Okamoto’s dazzling 1967 film Age of Assassins) constantly one step ahead of him. Although the fisticuffs are a touch – shall we say – unpolished, Gosha nevertheless makes the two men from Hong Kong a credible threat. The murder scenes have a vicious edge to them and he sets the action in some really atmospheric locations. A chase and double murder in the middle of the night at a water recycling plant is a terrific little setpiece as is a juicy back alley catfight between Teruko and Utako in which the actresses do a convincing job of throwing each other around. For the robbery which opens the film Gosha shrewdly inverts the positive image of the film stock into a negative one. This is not only visually eye-catching but proves an effective way of muddying the waters and adding a touch of intrigue as to who’s who and what’s just happened. We need this otherwise the viewer would be too far ahead of Oida in figuring everything out.

The cast are engaging but the real stars are Gosha’s dynamic screen compositions and Tadashai Sakai’s gleaming noir-ish cinematography. In fact the visuals are frequently so striking that it inadvertently highlights Gosha’s weakness as a filmmaker in that he’s clearly a director primarily interested in technique but he’s really not much of an actor’s director. I mean Tatsuya Nakadai has the most marvellously expressive features but he has a tendency to ham unless he’s under the guidance of a strong director and there are more than a few times here where his performance seems a bit overdone. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything but one is aware of it and it’s something you feel a more attentive director might have corrected. But that aside this a most engaging tale of wounded souls crossing and recrossing each other’s paths against a backdrop of seedy clubs and dark alleys and ultimately finding redemption even as the story remains true to its noir roots.

Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1962)

A terrific film that vaults into the first rank of my favourite Kurosawa’s alongside Ran, Rashomon, High and Low and Rhapsody in August. Toshiro Mifune is an absolute delight here as the scruffy, indolent, but-light-years-ahead-of-everyone-else warrior who rescues a bunch of witless samurai and then cleans up their corruption difficulties in local government. Two things I loved about his character; first, that he’d rather use his brains than rush in and kill everyone (an attractive trait that undergoes a brilliant and scary reversal when the rash actions of the samurai he’s befriended forces him to slaughter an entire roomful of enemy soldiers in one breathtaking sequence), and second, Mifune’s marvellous physical presence.

Constantly yawning and scratching himself, with a series of fed up facial expressions hilariously well deployed, Sanjuro’s’s purposeful when needs be but otherwise he’s like a cat that just wants to go off and snooze. For me one of the most delightful moments in the film is the scene where the other samurai run in and out of his room in a panic as an irritable Sanjuro moves from one corner to another trying to get some sleep. Mifune’s performance – even if it owes something to the previous years Yojimbo is a great creation and I love that the one thing that rattles his otherwise invincible demeanour is the presence of women – specifically the elderly wife and daughter of the kidnapped Lord, the former of whom admonishes Sanjuro about using too much violence(!) and puts a distinctively feminine spin on the final rescue. All of this in ways that only serve to underline that under that scruffy, bad tempered surface Sanjuro is  – just as he was in Yojimbo – a thoroughly honourable individual.

And as good as Mifune is he’s matched here as he was in Yojimbo by the great Tatsuya Nakadai (Sword of Doom, Goyokin) as his nemesis. Even if you haven’t seen Sanjuro you may have heard about the final duel between them, about how it may well be the briefest ever filmed, it must certainly be the bloodiest (that fashion for blood spurting like a geyser from the human body? It all began here) and it’s a truly show-stopping moment. Elsewhere Kurosawa gets great performances from the actors playing the naive samurai. Best of all is just how tight the story is. From the opening scene everything clicks with the kind of ease and clarity one suspects could only have come from a great deal of hard work. Perfectly paced at 95 minutes there isn’t a shot or line that feels wasted. Sanjuro seems to get dismissed by some on the grounds that because it has so much humour it’s therefore ‘lightweight’. I think this is very unfair because hard as it is to make a great drama it’s even harder to do so in the guise of a comedy. To deal with serious themes in a light hearted manner, to be able to pivot from comedy to drama as Kurosawa does so effortlessly here, seems to me the mark of a real master. So I think Sanjuro is pretty great and it would make the perfect intro for those new to Kurosawa.

Blue Christmas (Kihachi Okamoto, Japan, 1978)

Witnesses to worldwide UFO sightings find their blood turning blue. They become the scapegoats for an orchestrated campaign of hysteria and violence. But orchestrated by whom? A reporter for Japanese TV (Tatsuya Nakadai) sets out to uncover the truth.

The ghosts of WW2 are never far from the work of Okamoto – a University graduate whose entire class was drafted into the Pacific war in 1943 and of whom Okamoto was one of its few survivors – but Blue Christmas represents something of a departure. For starters it’s not a war pic but a glossy, contemporary SF/globe-trotting conspiracy thriller not a million miles away from Fukasaku’s Virus and its drama is fueled not by a Japanese experience of the war but a European one, namely The Holocaust. So, as Nakadai’s reporter travels from Japan to New York in search of a missing scientist and hears tales of secret facilities in which people with blue blood have been interrogated and then lobotomized to stop them talking, of Siberian concentration camps and underground resistance movements, the film shows promise. The sense of constant surveillance and menacing figures in shades who seem to know our hero’s every move conjures up agreeable echoes of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But too many undeveloped sub-plots ultimately weaken the drama.

Just to give you some examples of those; Nakadai finds himself exiled to Paris with his family after his superiors shut down his investigation. A promising young actress is framed for drug taking and later commits suicide after Nakadai carelessly lets slip to his boss that there’s a rumour she has blue blood. UFO sightings continue to increase as vast swarms of saucer and cigar-shaped objects are seen around the world. An elite soldier in the Japanese military discovers one of his comrades is now a member of an underground resistance movement after his own blood turned blue. Oh, and there’s bizarre American rock band called The Humanoids who preach about an imminent alien invasion, about something major happening on Christmas Eve and whose song Blue Christmas is topping the charts everywhere. Now any one (or two, or three, or four!) of these stories would be sufficient to explore Okamoto’s chosen themes of prejudice and global media manipulation (it’s a sign of the times that after all those Japanese pro-UN disaster movies of the past decades, that same organization is shown here in a distinctly darker light) but even though I had no problem with the film’s hefty 123 min runtime the sheer number of sub-plots can’t disgise the fact that the film lacks a proper focus.

In fact Nakadai’s journo virtually drops out of the pic altogether by the halfway mark and the film can’t entirely avoid both the travelogue aspect – there’s a whole sequence in New York of him pounding the streets that could easily have been dropped – or some ill-judged foreign language segments in which Nakadai and a French actor attempt a conversation in woefully broken English. Fortunately the excellent quality copy I saw had good English subtitles which was probably just as well otherwise I don’t think I’d have understood a word they’d have been saying. As for where the UFO’s come from and what they want and who’s actually behind this conspiracy to seize global power – that’s never explained either. Although there’s no doubting Okamoto’s empathy with those who find themselves shunned by society – best conveyed in a grim but touching climax in which the camera tracks a stream of blue blood from a murdered woman as it trickles through the snow to intermingle with the red blood of her lover – Blue Christmas is more a mildly diverting experience, an interesting failure than a successfully realized story. It does have its moments though.

The Inheritance (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1962)

A dying businessman named Senzo (So Yamamura) announces that his vast fortune is to be split equally among his three illegitimate children provided they can be located. To this end he orders his trusted and innocent secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi) to locate his oldest son while a bent lawyer (Jun Hamamura) is instructed to locate the other two. However it isn’t long before Senzo’s greedy wife Sato (Misako Watanabe) is conspiring with the lawyer to sabotage the hunt in return for a share of the inheritance, while the lawyer’s junior assistant (Tatsuya Nakadai) hatches his own plan to snare the cash by entering into an arrangement with Senzo’s murderously inclined daughter Mariko (Mari Yoshimura).

Enjoyable and entertainingly cynical portrait of amoral schemers, ultimately all done over by the one character in the film seemingly least likely to harbour a malicious thought. Part drama, part film noir and with a dash of corporate intrigue (this feels like a particularly acidic Billy Wilder movie) this is beautifully shot in b/w with cinematographer Takashi Kawamata contributing a succession of splendidly dynamic widescreen compositions. Toru Takemitsu’s terrifically cool jazz score somehow makes the events feel even seedier and the film boasts pitch-perfect performances from its classy cast, not the least of which is Keiko Kishi’s turn as the boss’s innocent secretary. Now admittedly The Inheritance is an ensemble piece and not a star vehicle for Kishi as such, but even so the film gives her the opportunity to play both sides of her screen persona and it really works because it’s Kishi’s character the viewer relates too as everyone else is just too horrible for words. There’s a scene right near the end where Kobayashi’s camera closes in on Kishi’s face as she gives a growing smile at the carnage unfolding around her and it’s a great moment – the visual equivalent of a slap in the face for the viewer -which works precisely because this woman’s had our sympathy right from the start.

One of my favourite Japanese actresses, the seemingly ageless Kishi, who began her screen career in 1950, spent most of that decade cast as ingenue types, playing suffering sisters or wives. But from the 1960’s onwards directors seem to have recognised in her elegant beauty a potential for something darker. She was a favourite of Kon Ichikawa, who cast her as one of the murderesses bought together by their lovers infidelity in his black comedy 10 Dark Women (1961). Kobayashi used her again in the most memorable segment of Kwaidan (1964), where that combination of darkness and beauty made her ideal casting in the dual roles of a Snow Witch trying to pass herself off as a human wife, and in The Fossil (1975) in which she played Death, and Keiko gave an absolute tour de force performance as the killer on temporary release who falls for a young man while en route by train through the snowy wastes of northern Japan in director Koichi Saito’s wonderful romantic thriller The Rendevous (1971).