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Japanese Movie Mini Reviews

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Front Row Life (かぶりつき人生) (Japan, 1968) [DVD] - 2/5
Tatsumi Kumashiro's debut film about a moody gal whose fat mother is a stripper. The daughter gets a bit into the same trade, and runs into some unpleasant men, one of whom wants her to star in a pink film. Kumashiro fans should enjoy this as it’s unmistakably his work; I wasn't that impressed by it though, nor were the audiences at the time it seems. Kumashiro was back to assistant duties until Nikkatsu went Roman Porno. This film is tame compared to those, a character drama with mainly talk, but there are a few (non-striptease) scenes that show brief glimpses of nudity while pretending to be part of serious narrative. You get the feeling they calculated how much they could get away with.

The Turkish Bathhouses of Japan (札幌・横浜・名古屋・雄琴・博多 トルコ渡り鳥) (Japan, 1975) [TV] – 3/5
A Toei documentary exploration of "Turkish baths". The film features toruko-wanderer Meika Seri employing herself in the country’s many brothels in a fictional frame story into which documentary footage and interviews with real pros are inserted. Shingo Yamashiro narrates, Tsusai Sugawara pops up, and there’s footage of foreign prostitutes and a visit to a women’s toruko with male workers. The most obscure thing we learn: 90% toruko girls own a pet because they are lonely! Some of the lengthy footage with bubble specialist sex workers doing their thing is also interesting, though marred by tons of fogging, and this being an exploitation doc you can never be quite sure what’s staged and to what extent. The structure works pretty well anyway, with real footage balanced with a fictional road movie drama and not too many boring moments. A bit better than Sadao Nakajima’s similar pictures from a few years earlier. Note: Turkish baths were re-named into Soaplands in the 80s after the Turks took offense. The younger Japanese are no longer familiar with the term “toruko”.


The Day of No Return (Kaerazaru hibi) (帰らざる日々) (Japan, 1978) [DVD] - 3/5
A young man (Toshiyuki Nagashima) returns to his hometown and recalls his youth, including an unlikely friendship with a brutish bully (Jun Etô), and a girl (Kahori Takeda from Pink Hip Girl) whose father (Atsuo Nakamura in a Yoshio Harada role) was a yakuza. Told in parallel in 1978 and 1972 with plenty of period detail. Another good, though not exceptional film by Japan's top youth film director of the 70s, Toshiya Fujita. He's ironically best known abroad for his most atypical film, Lady Snowblood. Perhaps that makes sense though, as revenge films travel better, and serious youth dramas are a genre the Japanese are for some reason much more comfortable with than the rest of the world.

Prey (餌食) (Japan, 1979) – 4/5
Yuya Uchida x Koji Wakamatsu x Reggae. Uchida is a pot smoking ex-rocker back from the States. He hooks up with a small community of ex political radical, a bozo zoku style lone youngster and a teenage girl while growing increasingly concerned about the heroine trade conducted by gangsters in the show biz back-stage. A little more laidback than your average Wakamatsu fair, with an amazing non-stop reggae soundtrack and no graphic sex. Not the director at his most intense, yet unmistakably Wakamatsu all the way to the ending where Uchida goes postal in bright daylight and starts shooting random people on the street.


Shanghai Rhapsody (上海バンスキング) (Japan, 1984) [35mm] - 3/5
Enjoyable but overlong Shanghai musical set in the 30s and 40s. With Fukasaku's usual frantic pacing I was quite enjoying the film until at 45 minutes I realized there's still two thirds to go (most directors would’ve taken 80 minutes to get that far). Plenty of singing and dancing in night club context, a gwailo gangster speaking English and Japanese in the same sentence, and a brief, hysterical Etsuko Shihomi karate scene (she has the film’s biggest supporting role as Chinese girl marrying a Japanese musician). For a while I though the film was drawing a naive depiction of Japanese-Chinese co-living until I realized the war just hadn't started yet. When it does, it’s Japanese soldiers executing children on the streets. Not what the target audiences expected perhaps, but this wouldn't be a Fukasaku film without that kind of brutal honesty.

Big Magnum Kuroiwa Sensei (ビッグ・マグナム黒岩先生) (Japan, 1985) [DVD] – 3/5
“Violence education is my motto”, explains one of the new teachers at the School without Honor and Humanity, an institution full of delinquents, neo nazis and girls flashing their breasts (imported Nikkatsu actresses, I believe). And by "violence education" he means using violence in education. But the real badass in the school is the other newcomer, Kuroiwa sensei, a harmless looking old man who is actually a secret agent armed to the teeth, sent by the Board of Education! A relatively insane Kazuhiko Yamaguchi high school action comedy runs out of bullets at the end when the educational Rambo has to clear the school of bad boys without actually killing anyone. Lame. It's because the film was a family friendly mainstream comedy manga adaptation, released just prior to the 80s high school action boom (Be-bop High School and Sukeban Deka followed soon). It's still a good bit of fun, though.


Railroad Man (鉄道員) (Japan, 1999) [VoD] - 1/5
Old man devoted his life to work instead of family and spends most of the movie seeing b&w and sepia toned flashbacks. Popular Takakura movie could just as well have been women's sappy TV drama because nothing sets it apart from those other than the occasional widescreen landscape shot. Shinobu Otake's wife character so exceedingly tailor made for female TV audiences that any other viewer's head is likely to explode à la Scanners.

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The Tale of Zatoichi (座頭市物語) (Japan, 1962) [BD] - 4.5/5
Zatoichi meets honourable but enemy gang affiliated samurai Shigeru Amachi in the beautifully written and directed opening film. It's curious how ninkyo'ish the storyline is (before the genre even existed), with Katsu and Amachi's meetings and discussions being old fashioned romanticized male honour/duty/friendship cinema at its best (you don't find anything quite like this in modern cinema, except maybe in 80s John Woo films). At the same time it steers away from the dull evil gang vs. good gang yakuza film pattern by making both gangs rotten. And the entire movie is funny and touching, with both elements beautifully integrated into the narrative rather than slapped on top of it. Also Amachi, an actor I've sometimes dismissed in his Toei films, is extremely good here. One of the all time best yakuza films.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (続・座頭市物語) (Japan, 1962) [BD] - 3.5/5
Part 2. Zatoichi meets a man from the past (Katsu's brother Tomisaburo Wakayama). Enjoyable, wonderfully short (72 min) sequel nevertheless feels slightly superficial compared to the amazing original. The score (by Ichiro Saito instead of Akira Ikufube) dates the film, the storyline is built on back-story threads intentionally left loose in part one, and the Katsu-Wakayama pairing isn't milked to the full until the fantastic last 15 minutes. Still very good, but there was potential for even more.

New Tale of Zatoichi (新・座頭市物語) (Japan, 1963) [BD] - 4/5
Part 3. The first colour entry and a return to top form with comparable honour/duty/respect play as the original film. Zatoichi is about to leave the yakuza life behind when he encounters a man who isn't evil, but must kill Zatoichi because his brother was slain by him. Effective and very touching. Three further points of notice: the film contains one of Akira Ikufube's most beautiful scores, features stunning framing throughout, and intensifies the action with powerful sword action sound effects (something that, typical to older chambara and yakuza films, was largely absent from the first two Zatoichi movies).


Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (座頭市あばれ凧) (Japan, 1964) [BD] - 3/5
Part 7. Evil yakuza Tatsuo Endo tries to obtain a riverside area from a decent boss who is harbouring Zatoichi without knowing his true identity. Standard entry with a routine storyline. Katsu is lovable as usual and Endo has a great evil laugh.

Adventures of Zatoichi (座頭市関所破り) (Japan, 1964) [BD] - 3.5/5
Part 9. Sometimes you can do without a good plot. The characters, scenery and the hugely atmospheric final duel, all handled with finesse, make the uninspired `yakuza scheming with corrupt officials to extort villagers` plot surprisingly unobtrusive. Smooth sailing with the world's most lovable movie character.

Zatoichi's Conspiracy (新座頭市物語・笠間の血祭り) (Japan, 1973) [BD] - 3.5/5
Part 25. The last of the original run before the 1989 one-time revival. This one is better than the previous few entries, more in line with the classic 60s films than some of the cruder 70s entries. Nothing unique, but there's a nice atmosphere and the film makes a satisfying closing for the series.

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Keiko Sekine x 6

With Laputa Asagaya running a Keiko Sekine / Daiei Lemon Sex series in Tokyo soon, but me not being there, I gave myself a quick introduction to Daiei's early 70s youth film star at home since most of these films are streaming on Amazon Prime (also out on DVD). Btw, Sekine now goes by the name Keiko Takahashi... ever since she married Banmei Takahashi.

High School Affair (高校生ブルース) (Japan, 1970) [VoD] – 2/5
Daiei youth eros with a school girl (cute Keiko Sekine in her debut role) getting accidentally pregnant after a tender moment with a boyfriend. Charmingly innocent with an old fashioned score, sweet characters and amazing metaphors (the love scene cross-cut to a basketball match has to be seen) until suffocating conservatism kicks in and robs it of all the joy. Sekine's character turns into an irritating drama queen in the process. The lesson is: sex is a filthy thing and will destroy a youngster's life. This was the opening film in Daiei’s Lemon Sex line, which was quite a bit tamer than what other studios were putting out. The theatrical poster, however, is surprisingly daring for Daiei, with Sekine in a wet see-through shirt... at 15.


Child Bride (おさな妻) (Japan, 1970) [VoD] - 2.5/5
High school girl Keiko Sekine part-times as kindergarten teacher and falls in love with the young single father of her favourite student. She becomes his wife and the child's mother. Expectedly sweet and tame, but also a curious contrast to High School Affair with its pro shagging-minors narrative. But then again, shagging minors has always been a popular activity among the conservatives and this movie doesn't stray far from its conservative roots. Quite watchable nevertheless, not least because of Sekine, who had a lot of charm to her. This was supposed to be her debut film, but became no. 2 when Daiei used her as a replacement star in High School Affair a few months earlier.

The Forbidden Fruit (新・高校生ブルース) (1970) [VoD] – 2.5/5
More Daiei conservatism, this time disguised as sex comedy. A group of boys makes a pledge to lose their virginity. One of the targets is ultra-chaste Keiko Sekine who preaches in class "sex without love is for wild animals, not for human beings". This is actually moderately entertaining despite of, or because of, its American style hypocrisy that simultaneously preaches about love and morals but can't resist being a bit naughty (or perhaps it's the other way around, doesn't really make a difference). A sequel to High School Affair.

The Awakening (成熱) (Japan, 1971) [VoD] - 2/5
A barely disguised 'Keiko Sekine and pretty scenery` concept film set in various small towns during summer festival season. The story excuse aka plot centres on two rival high schools competing in photography. Tension and romance ensues. Quite watchable, but ultimately unrewarding (save for the "let's raid the agricultural high school" line that surely can't be heard in any other film). For some reason Sekine doesn’t get naked this time, and there's nothing even discreetly erotic in the movie, which is greatly at odds with the Lemon Sex Line billing.


Love for Eternity (高校生心中 純愛) (Japan, 1971) [DVD] – 3/5
High school lovers and part-time runaways Keiko Takahashi and Saburo Shinoda try to escape the conservative world that won't accept their relationship. A real rollercoaster, emotionally and quality wise. Sekine hits career low in a hysteric crying scene, then climaxes in a love scene in the clouds (which is awesome)! The adults are all toxic cunts, which gets your blood boiling because you really care for the young protagonists and wish they'd have the upper hand.

Play (Asobi) (遊び) (Japan, 1971) [VoD] - 3/5
Keiko Sekine gets the Yasuzo Masumura treatment. Shy girl Sekine from shitty home hooks up with unconfident youngster Masaaki Daimon who is revealed to be a yakuza under peer pressure. The story is told with frequent flashbacks to be past putting present moment scenes into an emotional context. This is Masumura in Electric Jellyfish mode, only the spark isn’t quite on the same level. There an overload of misery (especially with the bad parents) and characters feel like they’re on rails towards doom. But it comes alive big time when they decide to fight the destiny, with a very rewarding and touching last half an hour of gritty youth escapism. Easily Sekine’s most rebellious Daiei film.


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Kinji Fukasaku x 5

Blackmail is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生) (Japan, 1968) [DVD] - 3/5
One of the films Kinji Fukasaku helmed for Shochiku instead of his native Toei. The breezy youthful touch found in his film indeed fits Shochiku better than gangster heavyweight Toei, though one also feels this could’ve been a Nikkatsu film. The cast and crew are largely Toei people, though. Hiroki Matsukata is the titular blackmailer heading a very Nikkatsu esque youth gang gradually moving on to bigger fish to blackmail. Hideo Murota gets one of his best roles as Matsukata's pal, for once playing a good guy (if a blackmailer can be described as such). This was actually the 2nd time the source novel was adapted; it was preceded by a 1963 Toei film Life of Blackmail starring Tatsuo Umemiya and Sonny Chiba in a very different kind of rendering of the storyline (Chiba's policeman/former best friend character does not even appear in Fukasaku's version). Fukasaku's film is the more rebellious and faster paced one with frantic cutting between past and present to explain ongoing scenes on the fly. There’s a flashback overkill but it's an interesting way to tell a story anyway, and unmistakably Fukasaku.

Violent Panic: The Big Crash (Japan, 1976) [35mm] - 4/5
An utterly insane action film that is one of Kinji Fukasaku's lesser known movies, despite featuring one of the greatest car chases of all time. Tsunehiko Watase is a bank robber trying to escape the country with his girlfriend while being chased by the police and his dead partner's maniac brother (Hideo Murota) who wants his share of the cash. Fort the first 60 min it's an enjoyable heist drama set to Toshiaki Tsushima's (Battle without Honor and Humanity) terrific score and with excellent turns by Watase and Sugimoto (her best performance was in the previous year's ATG film Preparation for a Festival), followed by an incredible 20 minute demolition derby car chase. Imagine The Blues Brothers directed by Fukasaku as an ultraviolent crime film and you'll get the idea. Also features a hilarious Takuzo Kawatani performance as policeman whose girlfriend (Yayoi Watanabe) has constant trouble remaining faithful.


Lovers Lost (道頓堀川) (Japan, 1982) [VoD] - 3/5
A Kinji Fukasaku Shochiku drama about two young blokes in Osaka. The origin is a novel by Teru Miyamoto, whose Muddy River was filmed by Kohei Oguri a year before. Fukasaku’s film is a bit of an acting showcase for relative newcomers Hiroyuki Sanada and Koichi Sato, a JAC talent and Rentaro Mikuni’s son, playing a wanna-be painter and a pool player respectively. It is spare-part Ken Ogata Tsutomu Yamazaki as the latter’s hated father who is brilliant, though, while Keiko Matsuzaka steals the first billing just because her face had most marketing value. Maki Carousel, Mariko Kaga, Tsunehiko Watase and Megumi Saki (from Red Violation and Rape Ceremony) are in it too. Slow at first, but eventually electrifying with strong drama and a great pool duel at the end, followed by a totally over-the-top death scene. The 80s also brought a little pervert out of Fukasaku with remarkable nude scenes in one film after the other. Here we get, among other topless scenes, a crazed two minute nude dance for the camera, all in the name of serious drama narrative!

Legend of the Eight Samurai (里見八犬伝) (Japan, 1983) [35mm] - 4/5
An extremely entertaining samurai fantasy based on the Satomi hakkenden story, which Kinji Fukasaku had already adapted into a disappointing sci-fi film Message from Space a few years before. It's unmistakably a Kadokawa production, with fine production values and superstar cast starring Hiroko Yakushimaru and JAC sweetheart Hiroyuki Sanada at the height of their idolhood. Sanada was in terrific physical shape at the time and Yakushimaru, one of the cutest girls ever to grace Japanese cinema, had the kind of freshness about her performances that other idols couldn't even dream of. Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shihomi are an added bonus. The sets are wonderfully over the top, the film is colourful and there is a genuine feel of a fantasy adventure. Special effects vary between great and amusingly cheesy. The soundtrack, with songs by Dan O'Banion, contains more greatness than is humanly possible to express in words. An utterly enjoyable (and enduringly popular in Japan) piece of pop samurai cinema for boys; only a notch below Fukasaku's finest films.


House on Fire (火宅の人) (Japan, 1986) [DVD] - 3/5
80s novel adaptation of the stormy private life of a novelist, thankfully directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It's quite long at 132 min and feels even longer with Fukasaku cramming 3 hours worth of drama into 2, but not boring thanks to Fukasaku's sparkling direction and drama that is both believable and a bit outrageous. Ken "I am the best actor of the 80s" Ogata is his usual great self in the lead and so are all the actresses playing wives and mistresses, including Mieko Harada and her heavenly breasts.

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Daiei time! Took a free trial for Amazon Prime's Kadokawa Channel.

Yakuza Priest (やくざ坊主) (Japan, 1965) [VoD] – 2/5
Messy ‘fallen monk opens a business’ picture in which nothing interesting happens. Shintaro Katsu, still half in Zatoichi mode, plays the hoodlum monk who gambles, brawls and womanizes his way through the uneventful non-story. It even lacks exploitative or technical edge. But it does have one saving grace (in addition to Katsu): the underused Mikio Narita as Katsu's ronin opponent. Typecast to the point of boredom in the 70s yakuza films, Narita’s 60 swordsman roles have been a real discovery. A watchable film, but criminally weak considering the potential and talent involved. Followed by one sequel.


Bloody Shuriken (赤い手裏剣) (Japan, 1965) [VoD] – 2/5
Dagger throwing anti-hero Raizo Ichikawa rides into a spaghetti western town full of crooks and a hidden treasure everyone wants to locate. Watchable yakuza / jidaigeki / western hybrid is occasionally stylish, but too superficial to make you care about what's going on.

Woman Gambling Expert (女の賭場) (Japan, 1966) [VoD] – 2.5/5
Part 1 in the 17 film Daiei series. An old man commits suicide after being accused of cheating in gambling den by a crooked yakuza (excellent Fumio Watanabe in a routine role). His restaurant owner daughter (Kyoko Enami) becomes the next target. Conservative Daiei surprisingly initiated this series two years before Toei took reign of the female gambler genre with Red Peony Gambler. But the origin is still evident. This is mainly a Daiei woman drama with yakuza elements until the electrifying last 15 minutes when Enami decides to learn the trade and get even. In a Toei picture, that scene would have played after the opening credits, or even before them, and served as the starting point for the story.

Love for an Idiot (痴人の愛) (Japan, 1967) [VoD] – 3/5
A couple goes domestic World War III in Masumura's exceedingly 60s gender satire. A pre-otaku era salaryman (excellent Shoichi Ozawa) gets a young wildcat (Michiyo Yasuda) as his pet, a role she goes along with for a while till she gets bored with the old geezer trying to fit her into his idea of what a woman should be like. There are some crazy outfits and amazing still photos, wickedly funny observations about desperate men, and fine performances too, but the lack plot can make all the rage a bit numbing at times. Michiyo Yasuda, who is better known as Daiei’s late 60s action Duracell Bunny (Lady Sazen and the Drenched Swallow Sword, Bamboo Leaf Omon) does a surprisingly daring role, however, there is doubt whether it’s really her or a body double in the numerous nude photos. Oh, and the English title is a bit different from the Japanese “An Idiot’s Love”, the idiot being the salaryman. Based on a 1924 novel by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - bit ironic considering how unmistakably 60s Masumura's film is. There had been at least 2 earlier film adaptations as well, in 1949 and 1960.


A Certain Killer's Key (ある殺し屋の鍵) (Japan, 1967) [VoD] - 3.5/5
Refined, stylish action thriller with professional killer Raizo Ichikawa hired to assassinate a businessman. Ichikawa, with his handsome looks integrated into a character who immerses in traditional arts when not assassinating people, doesn't look much like a hired killer, but that's one of the film's charms. From story to stylistic touches, the film does most things a bit differently, without becoming overly quirky. Captivating, even when nothing in particular is happening. A sequel to A Certain Killer, also a stylish film, but this sequel is even more focused and low key, better.


Electric Jellyfish (The Hot Little Girl) (しびれくらげ) (Japan, 1970) [VoD] - 3.5/5
A drunken dumbfuck father Ryoichi Tamagawa falls in yakuza debt trap after drawing attention by bragging about his sexy model daughter Mari Atsumi. He figures he can get the money from her jerk boyfriend Yusuke Kawazu, who just sold her body to a sleazy American to advance his own career. Meanwhile she's growing determined to tell everyone to go fuck themselves. An angry little Masumura film with dynamite Mari Atsumi on fire. Half of the dialogue is yelled, and the classical influenced score is overwhelming. For modern audiences the film may be a bit of an eye opener: this is where Sion Sono got his drama dynamics. A follow-up of sorts to a less exciting Masumura / Atsumi picture Electric Medusa (1970).


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Kadokawa x 3

Curtain Call (愛情物語) (Japan, 1984) [VoD] – 3.5/5
Utterly crazy Kadokawa dance flick with an amazing, ultra-80s "Broadway" musical opening which also collects all the black dudes in Japan into one scene! It's poor man's Flashdance, Streets of Fire, Michael Jackson and every 80’s female pop star in one, and it's one of the best manifestations of Kadokawa, whose strategy was to bring Hollywood spectacle into Japanese filmmaking. And this was helmed by the big man himself, narcotics criminal Haruki Kadokawa. The story is about 16 year old Tomoyo Harada going on a trip to find a lost father, then making a father figure of a nice middle aged man (the always watchable Tsunehiko Watase) while training for a musical audition. Showman Kadokawa was less a storyteller and more a monkey in the director's chair. But it works here, and there's no denying the musical scenes, many of which even the most hard-core 80s junkie would admit are cheesy as hell, deliver the fun and the sheer amazement.


Inujini seshi mono (犬死にせしもの) (Japan, 1986) [VoD] - 1/5
Fisherman Hiroyuki Sanada and two pals go pirate in 1947 Japan. A rather miserable drama with awful quirky direction and performances, including a couple of Japanese Richard Nortons. Sanada is the only one who comes off at least half-tolerable. I gave up after 40 minutes and fast-forwarded the rest, which seemed to be even worse.

Lover’s Time (Koibitotachi no jikoku) (恋人たちの時刻) (Japan, 1987) [VoD] – 3.5/5
Kadokawa discoveries, part deux. Great opening scene with cute, disturbed girl (Michiko Kawai from Somai’s P.P. Rider) silently watching the sea. She sees a lonely surfer boy swallowed by the waves. The next moment two biker guys emerge and try to rape her. The surfer boy manages to drive the goons away, but gets knocked out in the process. The girl, who seems more irritated than shocked by the incident, comes out from hiding, still minus the clothes which she doesn't seem to mind. As the story continues, he develops an obsession to get her to go out with him. The girl (she lives with an old sculptor as his nude model) then asks him to track down a missing person.

There's an odd quality to the film from the very beginning that I kept wondering about till Japan-best screenwriter Haruhiko Arai's (Rape Ceremony, Distant Thunder, Vibrator) name popped up in the OP credits, followed by Shinichiro Sawai's directorial credit. Sawai did Tragedy of W with Hiroko Yakushimaru, and this movie has the same kind of grip and relative grit. Not Arai at his most steady handed, yet endlessly interesting with plenty of unusual character details and melancholy, often captured by Sawai with ultra-long takes against gray Hokkaido fall backdrop. And the score is a by a certain Joe Hisaishi, who plagiarized his own work for A Scene at the Sea. Almost like a film from an alternative universe where idols do nudity and have traded bubblegum pop for dark psychological movies.


Also, the curious thing about Arai is that throughout the 80s essentially every second of his scripts were filmed as a Roman Porno and every second as mainstream or arthouse production, and most of them could've been any of the three with minor or no modifications.

Edited by Takuma

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Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (新座頭市・破れ!唐人剣) (Japan, 1971) [35mm] – 3/5
This is the only film in the series where Zatoichi farts! On someone's face, even! The reason I bring this up is that that fart in descriptive of the film: funny and functional, but rather unambitious, which is a shame for this being Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman, Katsu vs. Wang Yu. Pitting the two giants against each other is only right, but doing it on the excuse of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings is just lazy writing. There was potential for more. Also, you’ve got to wonder how smoothly the filming went? Neither one of the two stars are known as the easiest people to work with, and this has them playing their most beloved characters in a Japan vs. China death match. Reportedly an alternative cut was released to HK audiences with additional and altered footage.

The War of the Sixteen Year Olds (十六歳の戦争) (Japan, 1973/1976) [35mm] – 4/5
Funeral Parade of Roses director Toshio Matsuda's bloody excellent youth film set in rural Japan. This has one of the best opening scenes I've seen since Kiyoshi Nishimura's Too Young to Die (1969), with a young man arriving a town, and falling in love with a 16 year old girl as they watch the police pull two dead bodies from a river, all against a great rock song (the film's soundtrack is absolutely stunning!). Pure cinema! The film then follows their relationship as WWII traumas begin to surface in the town and lead the film down a far darker - and ambiguous - path. There are some jarring cuts and imperfections that make the film no less fascinating, and an amusingly gratuitous topless scene for Akiyoshi who looked pretty stunning at 19. Filmed independently in 1973, but not released until 1976. This became instantly of one my favourite 70s youth films!

Failed Youth (青春の蹉跌) (Japan, 1974) [35mm] – 4.5/5
Tatsumi Kumashiro's legendary youth film. This was his first movie for Toho, a departure from Roman Porno. The politically conscious script by Kazuhiko Hasegawa (The Youth Killer, The Man Who Stole the Sun) follows indecisive university student Ken'ichi Hagiwara and hopelessly in love younger girlfriend Kaori Momoi in the midst of young confusion, violent student radicalism and an era where modern and traditional clashed. It's a slow-burner, but excellently acted by Hagiwara and Momoi (also look out for Meika Seri as a street beggar) and filmed with loads of meaningful long takes, including an amazing love scene in the snowy mountains near the end. And the score is just beautiful! Kumashiro's masterpiece, no doubt! The film's obscurity shows just how little Toho cares for their own catalogue titles: chosen by the nation's best known film journal Kinema Junpo as the 21st best Japanese film ever made, Toho has not even bothered putting the film out on DVD (though it’s finally coming in December 2019).


Crazed Beast (狂った野獣) (Japan, 1976) [35mm] – 3.5/5
Sadao Nakajima's outrageous action farce that is essentially one 78 min action sequence. Punks Takuzo Kawatani and Ruyji Katagiri highjack a bus which, unbeknownst to them, is already carrying a bigger bad guy Tsunehiko Watase. This is an obvious production follow-up to Kinji Fukasaku's car chase film Violent Panic: The Big Crash (1976), with largely the same cast but more hysterical approach. The bus is loaded with quite some characters and the cops chasing the bus are the most self-destructive bunch I've ever seen. Watase, who had already starred in Violent Panic, got a bus driver’s license and proceeded to do his own stunts, including flipping the bus on its side (the other actors who remained inside the bus were the expendable Piranha Corps. Kawatani, Katagiri and Takashi Noguchi, the rest of the passengers were replaced with dolls) despite Nakajima trying to stop him! I hated this film upon my first viewing about 10 years ago when I expected a serious action drama à la Violent Panic, but found it quite amusing this time. The funniest scene: an old woman consoles children who are scared of Kawatani’s character: "don't worry, that uncle will be caught and get death penalty".


Mosquito on the 10th Floor (十階のモスキート) (Japan, 1983) [35mm] – 2/5
Yoichi Sai's debut, a depressing life-is-shit picture with Yuya Uchida as a cop in debt (to the bank, not the yakuza, unfortunately). He proceeds to do... very little. I first saw this on DVD and found it largely a bore; a 35mm screening a decade later did not change my mind. Flat filmmaking and a non-eventful story that Uchida's convincing performance can't save.

The Miracle of Joe Petrel (海燕ジョーの奇跡) (Japan, 1984) [VoD] – 3.5/5
Toshiya Fujita's gangster film loosely based on the 4th Okinawa Yakuza Conflict (also the base for Okinawa Yakuza War, 1976) where a Kyokuryu-kai president was shot dead by a hitman. The film starts out a bit dull, but gains momentum when the titular killer flees to Manila (fully fiction from here on) where he hooks up with Japanese small time gangster (Yoshio Harada) who deals anything from women to VCRs. Fujita uses the foreign location expertly, capturing the corruption, dirt, sleaze and beautiful nature, while steering away from the travel show / tourist filmmaker approach that plagues many similar Japanese productions. Leading man Saburo Tokito could be more charismatic and there are a couple of misfire clichés in the action, but overall the film is impressive.


Trivia: Toei originally acquired the rights to the novel the film is based on, and intended to make it with Kinji Fukasaku and Yusaku Matsuda. It went into pre-production and reportedly had a sales poster ready, but after various problems (it seems first Matsuda insisted on re-writing the script, then heroine Setsuko Karasuma dropped out because she felt Toei had exploited her in her previous film The Four Seasons: Natsuko (四季・奈津子) (1980) and she wanted nothing to do with the studio, and the release date was closing) the production was cancelled.

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Heaven Sent (Kamisama ga kureta akanbo) (神様のくれた赤ん坊) (Japan, 1979) [VoD] - 3/5
A surprisingly good road movie drama/comedy with careless Tsunehiko Watase finding out he's a dad to a small kid - maybe. The mother took off and left a list of 5 potential dads. Watase of course figures it must be one of the other 4. Companion Kaori Momoi isn't all too happy but stick along for a road trip to dump the kid to the real dad (the others can be blackmailed out of some money, they figure). One of the funniest segments features Watase catching one of the potential dads… in the middle of his wedding ceremony! Jidai geki & yakuza veteran Kanjuro Arashi (in his last role at 76 years old, he died the following year) is in the film too, in a bit that's bound to bring a smile to any genre film fan's face. Also, the child (child, not baby despite the erroneous Japanese title) is not irritating at all, in fact, he barely does anything but sit silently). Honest crowd pleasing entertainment, but also well made with good pace and script. Haruhiko Arai is credited as contributing writer, but the main credit should no doubt go to writer-director Yoichi Maeda.


Play it, Boogie-Woogie  (スローなブギにしとくれ) (Japan, 1981) [VoD] - 3/5
A slice of life picture with a bar / semi-drifter girl, an angry youngster with a bike, a divorced asshole, and a middle aged woman living with him. There's no plot, just one year of gritty life. And it works. Yoshio Harada (the asshole's friend), Hideo Murota (bar owner) and Kahori Takeda (teenage mom) have supporting roles, Kenji Sawada, Akira Takahashi and several others cameos. Toshiya Fujita directs.

Time and Tide (時代屋の女房) (Japan, 1983) [VoD] – 2/5
Nice guy antique store owner Tsunehiko Watase meets idiosyncratic girl Masako Natsume, then later another odd girl (also Natsume). A rather dull and very Shochiku-like drama co-scripted by Haruhiko Arai, whose usually identifiable touch is barely visible here, save for the normal guy / strange girl premise. Watase is very good (he's hugely under-rated, with solid performances one after another in both action pictures and dramas), the score is alright and there's some good use of cat-cam, but the film lacks bite.

Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ) (Japan, 1988) [VoD] - 1/5
Deadly Yoji Yamada boredom. Even Hiroko Yakushimaru can't save this as she is barely in it despite being the 1st billed. Yamada is more interested 1940s boy’s boarding school drama and nostalgia than her or, well, anything of interest. Had I had a rope, I would’ve probably hanged myself watching this.

Sting of Death (死の棘) (Japan, 1990) [VoD] – 2.5/5
An unfaithful family man and a ‘jealous to the point of mental illness’ wife face each other in a series of heated but unnaturally formal dialogues only interrupted by occasional surreal visions and scenes of almost horror film like dark atmosphere. Not an easy watch at 114 min, nor am I sure if this is good cinema, or just pretentious art. But it is, at least partly, oddly captivating and somewhat memorable, and that's something. 1990 Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury winner. Director Kohei Oguri releases films very sparsely: he has directed only six movies in 34 years, from 1981 to 2015.

The Lowlife (最低。) (Japan, 2017) [VoD] – 3.5/5
Exceptionally unbiased examination of women involved in the Japanese AV industry, based on a book by the AV superstar Mana Sakura. The film follows a young AV actress (Kokone Sasaki) whose narrow minded mother keeps putting blame on her over her career choice, a high school girl (Aina Yamada) bullied over her mother’s AV past (the same moral composition as the 1st story but in reverse), and a 34 year old woman (Ayano Moriguchi) who tries AV due to her husband’s lack of commitment to family life. This must be one of the most female centered films I have seen, not only all main and most supporting characters being women, but every scene focusing on how they feel as opposed to what they do. Rather than focusing on the industry; the film deals with people involved in the industry. Thoroughly well acted (with Kokone Sasaki way above her usual level) and directed with unexpected finesse by the frequently disappointing Takahisa Zeze. That is, before the film becomes a crying fest towards the end. Somehow I feel like forgiving that. And no, the film doesn’t shy away from the sex and nudity that naturally accompanies the subject despite being a mainstream film with major female audience appeal.


Edited by Takuma

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Cat Girl Gambling x 3

Cat Girl Gambling (賭場の牝猫) (Japan, 1965) [BD] - 3/5
Early female gambler film, surprisingly not by Toei or Daiei, but the hip Nikkatsu. Yumiko Nogawa is very good in the lead, extremely beautiful and determined yet somehow fragile in a way most Toei heroines were not. The fact that she does not fight in the film translates to character realism rather than conservatism. The gambling scenes are excellent as well, with the course of the game depicted in detail, which is vital for sustaining suspense and not always done right in yakuza films. There's even the fun game tactic laid out for all the wannabe cat girl gamblers out there: show some thigh and the players are less likely to notice you are cheating! And finally, the film is lower key and void of the pathos of many Toei films. A richer storyline and more focus on the modern milieu would not have hurt, however. As it stands, the film is good but not especially memorable.


Cat Girl Gambling: Naked Flesh Paid Into the Pot (賭場の牝猫 素肌の壷振り) (Japan, 1965) [BD] - 2/5
A direct follow-up with Nogawa now working in a bathhouse where gangster runaway Nitani (different role than last time) seeks shelter. Nogawa’s detective uncle is again investigating the case with young partner Tatsuya Fuji. Nogawa is her usual electrifying self, but the story is dull as dishwater with no gambling until the second half and only about 45 seconds of action in the entire film. Nikkatsu fans may get more out of it than I did.

Cat Girl Gambling: Game of Sharpened Fangs (賭場の牝猫 捨身の勝負) (Japan, 1965) [BD] – 2.5/5
The last in the trilogy, notably better than part 2. Nogawa gets acquainted with an honourable gang boss running a strip joint (!) (no nudity, however) who is being harassed by a crook boss. The enigmatic Nogawa dominates the screen, especially whenever someone tries to fuck with her - she's really fantastic, like Meiko Kaji but cuter and spicier. And she wears tattoos perhaps better than any other female star. She also gets to do a bit more action here, in addition to the great dice matches. But as usual, the storyline isn't especially dynamic and doesn't always even feel much like a gangster picture with the softer Nikkatsu drama touches.


Sister Street Fighter x 3

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (女必殺拳 危機一発) (Japan, 1974) [BD] - 3.5/5
Fun Shihomi flick suffers from some shaky cam excess, something that director Yamaguchi invented in late '74 (probably a Fukasaku influence) but gradually let go off in 75. It's still a lot of fun with guest star Kurata, Hideo Murota in rare main villain role, sleazy smugglers operating jewels into girls' arses, that awesome apocalyptic shot near the end, and some kiddie porn (is that Eva Ionesco? She seems to have been big in Asia... her Playboy photos are in one of the Shaw Bros.'s Criminals films too) that EVERYONE had forgotten was in the film until BBFC made it front page news.

Return of the Sister Street Fighter (帰ってきた女必殺拳) (Japan, 1975) [BD] - 3.5/5
The most excessive film in the series. Shihomi goes through her entire Chinese wardrobe, wheelchair villain Rinichi Yamamoto organizes a fight tournament reminiscent of Wang Yu films (one fighter is a fucking Zulu!) and my idol Osman Yusuf appears for 10 seconds as strip joint customer. Only a notch away from overly goofy, it still remains on the cool side and is mostly well paced at lovely 77 minutes. Shunsuke Kikuchi's score rocks the socks off as usual, and Yamaguchi thankfully does away with the shaky cam. But the storyline is a rehash of the first two films (how many relatives / friends / friends' relatives to be kidnapped does she have?) and Ishibashi is again denied the finale he deserves, which slightly hamper the enjoyment.


Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (女必殺五段拳) (Japan, 1976) [BD] - 3/5
The least in the series, yet packed with small pleasures. Shihomi in a hippie costume, future ATG director Claude Gagnon as a US drug lord, and ATG talents Ken Wallace & Michi Love as half-blooded siblings in a ridiculously manipulative yet sympathetic sub-plot. Shigehiro Ozawa helms it as pg-rated affair, which is a stumbling point for many fans. The real problem: a conservative doubt whether girl power goes all the way after all, given in Watase's speech about a woman's place and later verified when he needs to save Shihomi, something unheard of earlier in the series.


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