Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.

The Insect Woman (1963) by Shohei Imamura

The film tells the story of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), a girl born to a poor farming community in 1918. Tome’s upbringing is unconventional and difficult as she finds it hard to break away from the same problems of her parent’s generation. The story then moves to the second world war which finds Tome working at a factory, having children as she tries to lead a normal life. Post-war Japan sees Tome finding work in the city at a brothel. Tome’s life is packed with misfortune as she sees the worst of Japanese society.

The film deals with many difficult issues such as incest and prostitution and we see a shift from rural to urban focus in society, as people move from the countryside to find work, though still with the same sins and desires permeating and driving the characters. The film is well-written and we get an insight into the protagonists life and outlook through Tome’s interactions with a variety of characters, from family to colleagues. Fantastic acting and engaging dialogue drive the story on. The music is ominous, reflecting the darkness of the character’s lives.

“The Insect Woman” does not shrink from portraying a dark vision of Japanese life. At its heart it is a film about sin and attempting to escape from it while trying to do your best in a harsh world. The strong female protagonist battles on despite being seemingly punished for her own and others indiscretions.

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

Lady Snowblood (1973) by Toshiya Fujita

On a snowy night in a woman’s jail a young mother, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) gives birth to an girl surrounded by her fellow inmates. We learn that this woman was attacked by a ruthless gang who murdered her husband and young son and raped her. She successfully tracked down and killed the first of them, but was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. After giving birth to Yuki, she tells the women around her that her daughter is fated to become her avenger. Yuki is trained by Priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) in martial arts, becoming adept with the sword, and all the while having only revenge on her mind. Twenty years later, Yuki (Meiko Kaji), sets off to find the others who wronged her mother.

Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) with a screenplay by Norio Osada, director Toshiya Fujita creates an intense thriller packed with violent action. The story is chaptered, a reflection of its manga origins, and this creates a great forward momentum as Yuki tackles each challenge on her road to revenge. It also utilises an achronological approach to storytelling, using flashbacks or asides to paint a full picture of what happened, building up the legend of ‘Shurayuki-hime’ little by little. There are also a number of unexpected twists to the tale, as Yuki finds the path to vengeance is far from simple. Later in the film Yuki meets an author (Toshio Kurosawa) who writes and publishes her story, which creates an interesting dynamic as it contrasts this novelisation with the ‘true story’ we are watching, intensifying the impact of Yuki’s actions.

The film does not shy away from scenes of bloodshed as Yuki cuts her way through various assailants and the targets of her revenge. Meiko Kaji excels in the action sequences. The choreography is rarely extravagant, but is sharp and brutal, further heightening the sense of how deadly an assassin she has become. The training montages of Yuki as a child are interspersed with the story of her hunt for those who wronged her mother, thus layering the portrayal of the character as we glean more about her upbringing and what set her on this destructive path. The cinematography and editing are engaging, not only in the way that the film is paced, through chaptering and flashbacks, but in the scenes themselves, with cuts to extreme close-ups, or zoom outs in the case of one death helping to draw out the emotional resonance of the scenes. There is also a sunset motif that is well utilised, the idea of the setting sun perhaps representative of the death that Yuki brings in her wake, or her own slow decent into hell. Other elements that work well, and lend a manga style to the film, are the use of on screen captions for characters and the use of illustrated segments for historical references.

Meiko Kaji gives an amazing performance, stern and unforgiving. Kaji also sang the iconic theme song ‘Shura no Hana’, that bookends the film. The main villains, Banzo Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara) and Gishiro Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada) are all incredibly unlikeable, but each is given their own personality. Takemura seems genuinely ashamed and regretful of his crimes; Okono has now become a gang leader and shows no remorse; and Tsukamoto has moved on completely, almost dismissive of his former actions. It is these characterisations that make “Lady Snowblood” more than a simple action film. While the central plot is straightforward, it is bolstered by themes of struggle and poverty, of the introduction of European values into the country, all of which help create a vivid world.

“Lady Snowblood” takes place at the beginning of the Meiji Era, as we are told in narration. European ‘civility’ is clashing with the brutality of the former period; a theme brought into sharp focus in the final scenes of the film that take place at a ball with international visitors. Yuki stands out starkly in her kimono, in contrast to the guests in suits and ballgowns. There is also discussion of the notion of revenge, what it means and whether it can ever assuage the anger of someone who has been wronged. Yuki spends her entire life in this quest and the film asks poignantly towards the end what has become of her as a person, having devoted her entire existence to seeking vengeance.