Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) by Tomu Uchida

Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka) and Genta (Daisuke Kato) are retainers to samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Teruo Shimada), on their way to Edo. Along the road they meet various fellow travellers. A young boy interested in becoming a spear-carrier like Genpachi, a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a policeman on the trail of a thief, among others. The fates of everyone on the road become intertwined with both humorous and tragic results.

“Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is directed by Tomu Uchida from a script by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro. It is an interesting story with both comedic elements and more serious social themes explored through the various characters. The humour may be a little outdated and slapstick but the two servants Genpachi and Genta are likeable and relatable enough, carrying the burden of supporting their master on his journey. In the later half of the film the tone shifts and is much more downbeat and pessimistic. The cinematography is well-done and in particular the staging and framing of every shot shows a masterful understanding of technique, utilising theatrical staging with more modern techniques such as overhead shots.

The film has a strong social message regarding the class system that is as strikingly relevant today as it was at the time of release, and even during the period when the film is set. Our attention is drawn early to the various professions of the travellers on the road, in particular the difference between the status of Genpachi and Genta and their master Kojuro. The turning point of the film comes when Kojuro receives the praise for the actions of Genpachi and we realise that respect is something that is inherited rather than earned. The film augments this central theme with the characters of the mother whose daughter is to be sold into prostitution. Also, with the arrogance of the samurai whom Kojuro meets later in the film. It is a passionate appeal that a person’s worth not be judged by their social standing, but by their actions. At the end of the film, Genpachi warns the boy not to become a spear-carrier. This may be a plea to the audience that they should never be bound by the disputes of others, or a more pessimistic acknowledgement of an unavoidable fate. One of the characters earlier in the film makes reference to the fact they everyone has a master, “But who is the lord’s master?” he asks. A deity? Are we doomed from birth to walk a particular path. And does it always end in violence?

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Set in 1959, “No Greater Love” is the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy “The Human Condition”. This first part follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young man who is sent out to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1943. His job is to oversee the iron-ore mining operations. He travels to China with his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and soon comes up against fierce resistance in his attempts to improve the conditions of the workers. Despite his colleague Okishima (So Yamamura) being sympathetic to his aims, the foremen of the mines, in particular Okazaki (Eitaro Ozawa), treat him with contempt believing him to be weak. When the military police send hundreds of prisoners to be put to work, Kaji is left in charge of the men and tries to help them despite their distrust of the Japanese and repeated escape attempts.

“The Human Condition” is based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa with a screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama and director Masaki Kobayashi. The story is epic in scale, but manages to keep its central plot personal. Beginning with Kaji and Michiko, they act as a focal point for the horrors that are happening around them. Kaji represents the viewer in his disbelief and disgust at what he finds in Manchuria. But despite his best efforts he is unable to stop many of the atrocities. This creates a poignant narrative of humanity’s failure to effectively tackle its most vile elements. Despite a large cast of characters the film never feels overly complex, even when it comes to the escape attempts which involve a number of players on both sides of the fence. Likewise, the framing creates clear distinctions between characters and numerous moments of tension as their ideologies come into contact. This is most clear when Kaji faces off against the military police officers.  The presence of the Japanese Imperial flag in the background in scenes where the characters actions may be immoral mark the film as a bold work. It is unsurprising that it had its critics on release due to an apparent anti-Japanese bias (in fact the film is staunchly anti-war, but this distinction may have gone unnoticed at the time). The production value is clearly high and the sets and number of extras create a sense of realism that helps the film achieve a greater impact. The brutality is largely only alluded to until the final third of the film. This creates a sense of tension and foreboding that something terrible will happen. Chuji Kinoshita provides a suitably epic score and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is exceptional.

The film is a startling criticism of Japanese militarism and a rebuke to nationalist sympathies. It shows the Japanese occupation of Manchuria as cruel and the inhumane treatment of their prisoners who were put to work in the mines. Racism is rife, with the Japanese looking down on the Chinese locals. The inclusion of “comfort women” and enforced prostitution in the film also exposes a part of history that many would rather keep hidden. The women are given a strong voice through the character of an unwilling prostitute used by the Japanese forces and their captives. She states explicitly that they are as much prisoners as the men who are kept behind the barbed wire fences. They have no freedom to choose. The film shows the most despicable side of human nature, one that is cruel and discriminatory. However, it balances this by including the love story between her and one of the prisoners. There is a frail sense of hope that love can blossom even in adversity. In the end, Kaji feels that he has failed. Not because he participated in the violence, but because he allowed it to happen. Kaji’s pacifism and humanism are a constant cause of scorn for his fellow men, who believe this to be a sign of weakness. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has chosen by far the more difficult path, to espouse peace and care for his fellow men when all around him are violent.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

The film opens as an old man and his daughter are crossing the hills, almost at the end of their long journey. When the girl rushes off to get water, her grandfather is brutally cut down by a samurai, without provocation. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). We follow him back to his village where he is to take on a rival for the position of leader of their swordfighting school. When his opponent’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), pleads with him to let her husband win, Ryunosuke arranges to meet her late at night at a mill where he then rapes her. Spurred on by his anger, his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), lunges at Ryunosuke after their bout ends. Ryunosuke, an unmatched skill with the sword, counters, striking a fatal blow. He leaves town, cutting down a number of men who attempt to take revenge for the slaying of their leader. Two years later the action has moved to Edo, where Ryunosuke is now living with Ohama. He joins a group of mercenaries, a perfect fit for someone lacking any moral compass. Ryunosuke continues in his violent path, caring little for those around him, and killing without compunction. Later, he is troubled by visions of those he has killed, striking out in a blind rage as the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him.

“The Sword of Doom” is based on the book “The Great Bodhisattva Pass” by Kaizan Nakazato, previously adapted into works of the same title as the novel. The screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on a number of Akira Kurosawa films including “Rashomon” and “The Hidden Fortress”. Director Kihachi Okamoto brings forth the deadly threat of the period with expert use of long, still takes broken by flashes of violent action sequences. The opening scene, with its shock death early on shows the audience that death and violence lurk constantly behind the seemingly calm surface of rules and ritual commonly assumed of the period. The duel between Ryunosuke Tsukue and Bunnojo Utsuki is a masterclass in creating tension; as the two face off against each other every tiny movement becomes cause for concern. This is achieved through firstly setting up both characters as a serious threat. The audience is more than aware that either could easily kill the other and most probably will. The soundtrack throughout, with the clack of bokken breaking the silences, perfectly captures this sense of dread, making you aware of the frailty of human life and how quickly it can be snatched away. Nakadai’s Ryunosuke is a heartless anti-hero, compelling yet hard to feel any remorse for. The rest of the cast act as a perfect foil for him, reflecting the evil in his own heart by their own purity of purpose and display of emotional depth. Yuzo Kayama plays Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of the fallen duellist and intent on revenge. Michiyo Aratama, as Ryunosuke’s unwilling wife, offers an insight into the struggles of women in this period characterised by violence and an almost pathological reverence for the “way of the sword”. Toshiro Mifune is well-cast as Toranosuke Shimada, the leader of a swordfighting school and a match in skill to Ryunosuke. Yoko Naito plays Omatsu, who having lost her grandfather at the beginning of the film, is part of a major subplot as she attempts to first win over the local lord, and later finds employment as a courtesan, coming face to face with her grandfather’s killer at the film’s climax.

“The Sword of Doom” portrays the ultimate anti-hero in Ryunosuke Tsukue. He is a man with few virtues other than his ultimate skill with a katana. There is a repeated line in the film about the reflection of a man’s soul in his sword. This link is perhaps the key to understanding the message of the film. Ryunosuke has poured every part of himself into his sword, he is no longer capable of compassion or empathy, to many extents he is the embodiment of a vengeful spirit, demonic in his dedication to swordfighting. His cold expression speaks to the emptiness at the heart of his character. By dedicating himself to the art of war, he has become the horror of war itself, with no room left in him for love, friendship, honour, mercy, or any other trait that might mark him as human. The final act of the film sees him crumble in completely, no longer able to hold himself together and becoming no more than his anger and swordsmanship. The final shot of the film sees his face contorted, having lost all humanity he is doomed to die or be endlessly tortured by what he has done.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Goda arrives home from after-work drinks to find his girlfriend of 10 years has shot herself. The initial shock soon gives way to curiosity as he tries to uncover where she got the gun from. His search for understanding, both the mystery of the origin of the weapon, and the more ineffable reasons for her committing suicide. Goda is soon scouring gun enthusiast forums and makes his own firearm. He wanders through the dark underbelly of the city, far removed from his daily life at an advertising agency. His journey brings him into contact with Chisato, a member of a street gang who is engaged in her own struggle with self destruction.

Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) writes, directs and stars in “Bullet Ballet”. The film is a clear development of his style from his earlier Tetsuo films, blending arthouse visuals with the brutality of an exploitation film. Shot on 16mm Black and White, with frenetic cuts, this film has more narrative structure and the editing is reigned in a little which helps make the film more comprehensible. Use of cuts to black, strobe lighting, and more can make for uncomfortable viewing, but these techniques are used sparingly and are rarely gratuitous. There are some stand-out examples of the power of film, in the rapid cuts between gunshots and scenes of war and destruction, that help the viewer sense the terrible power of this weapon. When a gun is aimed at a character in the film you are in no doubt about what the potential consequences would be. The film uses some fantastic locations, dark alleyways and abandoned buildings, and they are shot and directed to their best effect. Dripping water, the play of light and shadows, and the sense of a broken vision of what the city should be all create the perfect backdrop to the drama. The grime and decay is almost palpable through the screen. Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead character, is good as Goda, capturing the various emotions that Goda is going through: anger, sadness, fear. Kirina Mano gives a great performance as Chisato, tough with an underlying fragility. Many of the characters are ambiguous in nature and the film is far from a simple good versus evil tale; instead it feels like it is trying to unravel the morality of an incomprehensibly complex system that is largely dictated by uncontrollable feelings. The supporting cast all do a good job, the gang members are suitably menacing, almost the human embodiment of the dark city streets they inhabit.

Tsukamoto weaves a number of themes and ideas through the simple narrative creating a work that really wants to say something about the problems it addresses. For example, Goda’s obsession with the gun become a more general rumination on the problem of violence in society. Likewise, in attempting to work through his anger and upset at his girlfriend’s death, and fathom some reason for it, he is in fact representing a deeply felt angst in Japanese society about this issue. Suicide is a serious problem in Japan and the film has two characters that seem to have this self-destructive urge. While “Bullet Ballet” rightly shies away from giving any definitive solution to the problem, it does shine a light on it, questioning to what extent this self-destructive urge is perhaps part of a larger undercurrent of violence in society. Goda’s obsession with the gun as a solution to his anger and sense of powerlessness at the loss of his girlfriend shows that Goda is not above this descent into violence.

Party ‘Round the Globe (2017)

Two co-workers at a small electronics company travel together to a Paul McCartney concert at Tokyo Dome. One of the men is a humorous, talkative individual, the other sits in stoic silence, eyes fixed on the road. As the film progresses we cut back to the life of this quiet individual as he goes about his daily routine, watering plants, working at his monotonous job, listening to news stories of terror attacks and disasters, and thinking about a former life.

Written and directed by Hirofumi Watanabe the film has many hallmarks of an indie feature. Shot in black-and-white, long static camera takes. The film drags the audience into the tedium of the protagonists life. This is far from an easy watch as you almost begin to feel the oppressive weight of this on him. These lengthy sequences are broken up by the scenes of his car journey as his companion continues to ramble on about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, music fans, and other interconnected topics.

This is not a film that immediately endears itself to the audience. In fact it almost goes out of its way to do everything to turn you off watching. But there is something strangely intriguing about it. Perhaps because of the almost offensively boring nature of certain scenes it makes you think about what is happening. What is the significance of the radio stories to this man? What is it he wants from life? What does he feel about the concert he is driving to? What happened in his past? The film offers few answers but it does draw the character realistically enough that you can assume that there are answers. Certainly not for everyone, but if your patience allows and you are a fan of slow-burn human dramas with a humorous tinge, it is worth a watch.