The Sociopath’s Playbook

The Japanese film poster for THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959), directed by Eizo Sugawa.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sociopath is a person who has a personality disorder which causes them to behave in an aggressive, violent or unpleasant way towards other people. The general opinion among psychiatrists is that sociopaths are not born that way, which is usually the case with psychopaths. Instead, sociopaths are shaped by their environment and experiences. A classic example of this is profiled in Eizo Sugawa’s Yaju Shisubeshi (English title: The Beast Shall Die). The protagonist of this 1959 psychological thriller is Date Kunihiko (Tatsuya Nakadai), a quiet, well-mannered graduate student who is exceptionally gifted as a writer and athlete. Behind his benign façade, however, is a cunning sociopath with a plan that slowly reveals itself as the film unfolds. As portrayed by Nakadai, Date is a truly chilling figure and one of his least known but most potent early performances. It deserves to be included with his more celebrated work in such Japanese masterpieces as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-1961), Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966) and numerous collaborations with Akira Kurosawa such as Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963) and Kagemusha (1980).

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Good Cop, Bad Cop

The Japanese film poster for RED HANDKERCHIEF (1964)

Among the major film studios in Japan, Nikkatsu is generally regarded as the oldest but it almost didn’t survive the post-WW2 years after shutting down production in 1942. When it relaunched in 1954, audience tastes had changed and so had the moviegoing public, which was younger and hungry for films that reflected the problems, attitudes and pop culture of their generation. As a result, the studio began to churn out different kinds of films – yakuza and cop thrillers, youth rebellion dramas and frenetic comedies/musicals – that were partially inspired by American genre films and the rise of rebel icons like James Dean and Elvis Presley. Often categorized as “Nikkatsu Action Cinema,” these films experienced a surge of popularity in the late 50s as such directors as Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, Koreyoshi Kurahara and Toshio Masuda emerged as the most creative filmmakers at Nikkatsu during the post-war new wave. Masuda, in particular, was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers at the studio and helped actor Yujiro Ishihara achieve major stardom after their first collaboration Rusty Knife (1958), a gritty crime drama about a volatile street tough who crosses the mob. They went on to make 25 features together but, curiously enough, one of their most successful films, Akai Hankachi (Red Handkerchief, 1964), is almost forgotten and difficult to see outside of Japan.

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

The Japanese film poster for Yatsuhaka-mura aka VILLAGE OF EIGHT GRAVESTONES (1977)

Not all homecomings are happy affairs and, if you want to experience one that makes a good argument against family reunions, consider Yatsuhaka-mura (Japanese title, Village of Eight Gravestones, 1977), which presents the ancestral homestead as a cursed place with a dark history. Tatsuya (played by former pop singer Ken’ichi Hagiwara), the film’s protagonist, was taken away from his mountain village by his mother when he was just a child but when he returns after many years, he feels like the ultimate outsider as he reconnects with family he never really knew. Not only is his village isolated and mired in the past but it sits upon a network of underground caves and tunnels, which hold the key to a family secret.

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The Cult of Kaze

There are good cults and bad cults and the cult of Kaze is a bit of both worlds. Not really a recognized cult, it is instead an informal club of ten women who are united in sisterhood over a common cause which they hope will result in their liberation from a certain Mr. Kaze, a handsome, successful executive in the television industry. The bad part of their mutual solidarity is that the women want Kaze to die and they aim to kill him. Why? Because nine of the women have had affairs with and been discarded by this man and the tenth woman, Futaba Kaze, is his wife and has suffered from his serial unfaithfulness for years. As you would expect from this set-up, Kuroi jûnin no onna (The English title translates as Ten Dark Women or Ten Women in Black), directed by Kon Ichikawa in 1961, is a feminist revenge film but it is also so much more than that.

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The Kaiju Eiga Man

Special Effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya with the caterpillar version of the creature that became MOTHRA (1961), a Japanese monster fantasy cult favorite.

When the subject of Japanese film comes up, you might assume that Akira Kurosawa is that nation’s most famous filmmaker in terms of international recognition and critical acclaim. Yet, a 2014 book by August Ragone (published by Chronicle Books), makes a good case for another filmmaker from Japan whose worldwide popularity, especially among sci-fi/fantasy fans, is probably greater than Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa combined.  His name is Eiji Tsuburaya. What? The name doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you’ve heard of Godzilla (1954) or Mothra (1961) or Destroy All Monsters (1968) or Rodan (1956) or countless other sci-fi/fantasy films from Toho Studios that featured Tsuburaya’s special effects? 

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The Worm Turns

Japanese film poster for THE GLAMOROUS GHOST (1964)

The Glamorous Ghost (Japanese Title: Sanpo Suru Reikyusha, 1964) is something of a rarity in Japanese cinema – a noir comedy. This is the sort of twisty, convoluted farce in which all of the main characters are greedy, immoral and deceitful and you end up rooting for Asami (Ko Nishimura), the taxi driver protagonist, only because he is a pitiful underdog with a simple dream – to retire and run a pig farm in the country. His plan to accomplish that, however, involves blackmail and worse and before The Glamorous Ghost reaches its macabre but amusing climax, most of the major players have departed this mortal coil.

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The Girl with the Fishing Spear

Mari Shirato plays a fisherman’s widow who is preparing to avenge her husband in the 1984 thriller Mermaid Legend, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda.

In 1984 ATG (Art Theater Guild), one of the most experimental and artistic of Japan’s film distribution companies, and Directors Company, released Ningyo Densetsu, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda. ATG had already established itself as a cutting-edge visionary with such releases as Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and Seijun Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen (1980). Ningyo Densetsu was something altogether different – a commercially viable fusion of murder mystery, white collar crime and revenge thriller which looked more mainstream than most of ATG’s previous releases. Also known as Mermaid Legend, the movie is also much more extreme than some of the most infamous exploitation films of its era yet it is distinguished by its artistry in all areas of production. But make no mistake, this is not family-friendly fare or recommended for fans of The Little Mermaid

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Identity Disintegration

A wealthy chemist who was disfigured in an explosion undergoes plastic surgery in the 1966 Japanese film, The Face of Another.

What would happen if you lost the face you recognize as your own and had to replace it with a new one? Would you have an identity crisis or simply become a different person? Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara ponders this unusual dilemma in The Face of Another (1966, Japanese title: Tanin no kao). Continue reading

Don’t Act Cool, Just Be Cool

The Japanese film poster for A Certain Killer (1967) aka Aru Koroshi Ya starring Raizo Ichikawa.

The yakuza thriller has been a prominent genre in Japanese cinema since the silent era when soon to be celebrated directors like Yasujiro Ozu dabbled in gangster melodramas like Walk Cheerfully (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). Once conceived as B-movies with low-budgets and rushed production schedules, the yakuza film graduated to A-picture productions in the 1970s but the genre really hit its stride in the 1960s with such stellar examples as Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) and his more wildly stylized follow-up, Branded to Kill (1967). Still, there are so many superb yakuza films from this period waiting to be discovered by American audiences and one of my favorites is A Certain Killer (1967, Japanese title: Aru Koroshi Ya) from director Kazuo Mori.

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Balm for the Soul

The Japanese poster for The Burmese Harp (1956)

In 1955 Kon Ichikawa was a well established filmmaker in Japan who was mostly known for satiric comedies like Mr. Pu (1953) and A Billionaire (1954) and the occasional literary adaptation like Young People (1952). His work was still unknown outside of his own country but that would change with his 27th film, The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956). It would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan but also one that would bring him international acclaim. “That was the first film I really felt I had to make,” Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Richie.   Continue reading