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August 1, 2012

Best Japanese Cult Films of the 1960s-1970s (Movie Reviews)

The Japanese film scene positively bristles with cult films, especially when seen with a Western eye (which admittedly picks out the cult films for the art house circuit and neglects the majority of ordinary films). From monster films to extreme violence, from pure and unalloyed camp to kinky productions - the Japanese have it all. It even seems that during the last decades most directors were specializing in cult films - the whole oeuvres of, for example, Miike Takashi, Tsukamoto Shinya, Sono Shion, but also many older films by Suzuki Seijun, Nakagawa Nobuo, Ishii Teruo, and so on... So Japan is a paradise for cult. In two posts I will give my selection of the best Japanese cult films.

See my posts on Cult Films and Classical Cult Films at Splendid Labyrinths for a definition of the genre and some more examples from Japan.

Here are the ten best cult films from the 1960s and 1970s (in chronological order):
  • Hell (Jigoku, 1960) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Mitsuya Utako and Numata Yoichi. Japanese hell is Buddhist in origin, and although not eternal, punishment is very cruel indeed (based on Chinese corporeal punishments as flaying alive and sawing in pieces). Such a hell was not originally part of the Buddha's teachings, but was added in China before Buddhism reached Japan. Nakagawa Nobuo (of Yotsuya Kaidan fame) was inspired by ancient jigoku-zoshi (hell scroll paintings) he saw in temples. The first hour of the film plays in the normal world, the last 40 minutes is a grand tour of the nether regions - interestingly filmed on a large stage without any props, as the studio (Shin-Toho) was almost broke - but that spareness serves to make it more convincing than cardboard devils would have done. The film tells about the intertwined lives of various people with crimes on their conscience. The protagonist, a rather passive college student, for example feels morally responsible for the death of a drunken yakuza in a hit-and-run accident and for the fact that his girlfriend died in a taxi crash; he has a friend who is a sort of Mephistopheles (there is clear Faust influence in the film), a shadowy alter ego, enticing him to evil. At the same time, the mother and sister of the yakuza are on his tracks to kill him. The father of his girlfriend committed a crime against his comrades in the war; the director of a run-down old people's home almost starves the inmates to death or serves food that has gone bad; a sleazy doctor helps him cover his traces, etc. The bodies keep piling up and finally all arrive in Hell. This is not only a grand-guignol finale, the apex of "ero-guro-nansensu" (erotic-grotesque-nonsense), but Nakagawa imparts a serious message as well: those who are legally innocent, can still be morally guilty - for example by neglect, by passivity and refusal to speak out, by just letting things happen. The film demonstrates that these people are not free from Buddhist retribution... and perhaps should not go completely scot-free in the normal world, either. Jigoku attained immediate cult status upon release in Japan - the critics either loathed it or loved it. 
  • The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Taiji ga mitsuryo suru toki, 1966) by Wakamatsu Koji and with Yamaya Hatsuo and Shima Miharu. One of the most claustrophobic films ever made - almost the whole film takes place in one, tiny room that seems even smaller because of the violence occurring. The meager budget was one of the reasons, this independent film was actually made in Wakamatsu's production office. A middle-aged department-store manager takes a young, pretty employee to his apartment. What starts as a rather straightforward date soon erupts into sinister violence, as after giving her a sleeping pill, he binds her to the single bed and keeps her imprisoned for several days. Periodically he whips her or applies other forms of torture. All the while we hear soothing classical choral music. He asks intimate questions but also talks about his own relations with women, his mother with whom he had an oedipal relationship and who hanged herself, his wife who left him to have a child (he didn't want children). We are shown flashbacks about the past as well. The woman apparently looks like his wife and he tries to make her his slave. But in his dreams he imagines she is tormenting him "just like all the other women in his life." In one such dream, he is shown curled up in the fetal position, crying for his mother, after which the captured woman appears to console him with a lullaby. Here the sadomasochist fuses with the "passive male with a mother complex" who wants to return to the forgetfulness of the womb. Gradually the woman seems to be getting more passive, but that is show, for she is waiting for her chance - at the end she breaks free and takes revenge. The static location is enlivened by dramatic framing and editing and innovative camera angles. Called "fascinating in its austere and brutal poetry," and also "a perverse fairy tale that tries to recapture the world of childhood innocence," this film is extremely difficult to watch. 
  • Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono, 1966) by Suzuki Seijun and with Watari Tetsuya, Matsubara Chieko and Nitani Hideaki. The story is a conventional yakuza potboiler, but Suzuki transforms it into a frenzied fantasia with eye-popping visuals, lurid colors, and weird camera angles. And then there is that goofy enka sung by Watari Tetsuya... A reformed yakuza hitman is unable to enjoy his new life as he has to keep on the run from his old rivals who are still eager to assassinate him. Even his beloved boss, a kind father figure, betrays him. The film works as a fierce satire on yakuza ideals (yakuza films were a popular genre in the 1960s) and a revolt against the dumb genre films the intelligent and artistic director was forced to make (he would be fired after his next film). One might call it a struggle for individualism - interestingly, also the story could be interpreted in that way. Tokyo Drifter reaches new heights of surrealism and absurdity in Suzuki's work, the mise en scène is highly stylized: color provides major symbolism throughout the film, such as the psychedelically yellow bar where Matsubara Chieko is a singer, or the final fighting scene on a white stage, with also Watari Tetsuya in white but his opponents in black. Arguably the best film by "enfant terrible" Suzuki Seijun. 
  • Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968) by Fukasaku Kinji and with Miwa Akihiro, Kimura Isao and Matsuoka Kikko, as well as Mishima Yukio in a cameo. This deliciously campy film is dominated by Japan's most famous drag queen, Maruyama Akihiro (now Miwa Akihiro, popular in Japan thanks to countless TV appearances), who - at that time in the prime of youth and beauty - gives a shining performance by playing the notorious female criminal "Black Lizard." Based on a 1934 novel by Edogawa Rampo and its theatrical adaptation by Mishima Yukio, who was rumored to be the lover of Maruyama Akihiro. The film's protagonist is Akechi Kogoro, a detective patterned on Sherlock Holmes, who appears regularly in the stories of Edogawa Rampo. The plot is deliciously nonsensical: the Black Lizard kidnaps the beautiful daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain the "Star of Egypt" diamond. Akechi has been hired to thwart her. While they are dueling with their wits, the two adversaries start to respect each other. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked human dolls (including a muscled Mishima). Although difficult to obtain (there seems to be no DVD release, I recorded it decades ago from Japanese TV), the film has gained a steady cult following. It is my favorite Fukasaku Kinji film. 
  • Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo and with Hijikata Tatsumi, Yoshida Teruo and Kagawa Yukie. This film is never shown in Japan, not because it is considered too pornographic like In the Realm of the Senses, but because of its so-called "political incorrectness." The film presents people with physical deformations, played by Butoh actors. and that is apparently a no-go zone in Japan (what then about the American film Freaks, where everything is for real - see my post about Classical Cult Films in which this film is discussed?). Perhaps sensitivity is so high in Japan because the position of physically or mentally challenged people here seems in fact rather difficult, while in a country like the Netherlands, where people with various handicaps are fully accepted by society, no such hypersensitivity exists. The unavailability of the film in Japan (it has been released on DVD in the U.S.) is a pity, for it is good madcap fun, and the presence of the founder of Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, makes it a valuable document. At the same time the film is much tamer than its reputation would let you believe. The first part is the best: a man suffering from loss of memory escapes from a mental asylum. A folk song from the Hokuriku area sounds familiar to him so he travels to Noto. In a newspaper, he sees an obituary of a wealthy estate owner who looks exactly like him - he decides to impersonate the man, pretending to have suffered from suspended animation. This places him into some difficult situations - he discovers he has not only a wife, but also a mistress, and in a picture album he sees at the last moment the man he is impersonating was left-handed. The father is hiding out on an uninhabited island where he performs atrocious surgeries to turn normal human beings into monstrosities ("malformed ones"). The scenes on the island with Hijikata sliding among bare rocks are surrealistic, but there is no horror. Avant-garde theater meets B-exploitation flic. To make things worse, suddenly detective Akechi Kogoro appears as Deus ex Machina (his existence had not been announced earlier in the film) to explain the complicated family relations, and then everything ends with literally a big bang. Malformed Men combines exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. 
  • Blind Beast (Moju, 1969) by Masumura Yasuzo and with Funakoshi Eiji, Midori Mako and Sengoku Noriko. A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque cavernous studio, where each wall is covered in plaster sculptures representing parts of the female anatomy - huge breasts, legs, lips. On the studio floor lie two gigantic nude torsos, serving as a sort of couches. It is the artist's dream to sculpt the perfect female form - his sense of touch is very well developed, he has also worked as a masseur - , the only problem was to find a suitable model. The young woman has been kidnapped with the help of the sculptor's mother, who also acts as prison guard, stopping the fashion model when she tries to escape. But when the sculptor drops the ominous words "my mother is the only woman for me," she shrewdly uses her charms to drive a wedge between son and mother. She succeeds admirably and with mum safely under the kitchen floor, the artist is sort of sexually liberated, so that he can find the inspiration for his ideal masterpiece. From her side, the woman has started to love him, too. They loose themselves in ever more transgressive sex, finally cutting off each others limbs and dying in ecstasy - a story that with its strange sado-masochistic relationship reminds one of In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is another tale of madness and obsession after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. A true classic of erotic horror. Also see my post on Masumura Yasuzo
  • Double Suicide (Shinju: Ten no Amijima, 1969) by Shinoda Masahiro and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Iwashita Shima and Komatsu Hosei. Based on the puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from 1720. The film starts with modern bunraku actors preparing for the play; we also hear a phone call about preparations for the film. After the credits the film switches to real actors, but the puppeteers (kuroko) remain present, as if still manipulating the characters of the story. We are even shown the anguish of the puppeteers, who are unable to change the tragic course of the story. This is not a gimmick, but rather symbolizes the fact that humans are seldom free - certainly not in Edo-Japan, but aren't we even today often manipulated by social pressure? The paper merchant Jihei falls in love with the courtesan Koharu, but can't afford to redeem her from the brothel. In the Edo-period, where all marriages were arranged, this was the only situation where love could freely occur, but it was socially frowned upon - different from just a visit to a courtesan - as it could lead to the destruction of one's finances and family. Jihei therefore is torn between giri (the rules of society) and ninjo (his passion), which the film shows as mutually exclusive. An ironic twist is, that his wife, who doesn't want to loose him, desperately tries to raise money for him so that he can buy Koharu free - she is even willing to sell all her kimonos. Incidentally, both courtesan and wife are played by Iwashita Shima, as if to show that men always pursue the same type of woman. As wife, the actress has applied ohaguro, black tooth-dye, which was done by all married woman in the Edo-period but is seldom shown in films as it looks rather eerie to us. Finally the two lovers conclude a double suicide pact to escape the rigid rules of Japanese society. Their last lovemaking takes suitably place in a graveyard. Shot in austere black and white, this is strictly an avant-garde movie. Walls and even floors are covered with images from woodblock prints. The artificiality also serves to distance the audience in a Brechtian fashion. Criterion essay
  • School of the Holy Beast (Seijugakuen, 1974) by Suzuki Norifumi and with Takigawa Yumi, Yamauchi Emiko and Watanabe Yayoi. A highlight of the Japanese exploitation cinema, by Suzuki Norifumi, the most intelligent (Tokyo University graduate) director of the genre. A young woman hears her mother died of suicide in a convent so she takes up the habit and goes undercover. In the convent she discovers a stinking pit of sin run by a dictatorial Mother Superior with a sinister hairy priest. Vice, violence and flagellation rule the day: "God has given us the whip!" Suzuki filmed his B-stories on an A-level, widescreen and with startlingly beautiful use of color and space. Beauty and cruelty are also mixed in the most famous scene where the naked protagonist is bound with barbed wire and flagellated with thorny roses - the red petals, mixed with her blood, fly off the stems and float through the frame. Nunsploitation as you have never seen before! There are no religious taboos in Japan so Suzuki could pull out all blasphemous stops. Religion is revealed as hypocrisy, the nuns and priest derive lascivious pleasure from the suffering of others. Why would a Japanese make such a film, considering the very minor position of Christianity in the country? Although Catholicism had been very successful in the 16th c., especially in Kyushu, it was eradicated in the 17th c. as a danger to the state - the Tokugawa shoguns had seen correctly that conversion was followed by colonialism elsewhere in the world. To prove they were not Christians Japanese were forced to trample on religious images (fumi-e) - in the film this custom recurs in a rather interesting way. In other words, an anti-Christian rhetoric was cultivated in the Edo-period, and this has never completely died out. Moreover, Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in 16th c. Japan (even completely ruled by the Jesuits), so Suzuki brings out the irony that it became one of the two cities destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped by a Christian nation: the priest in the film has been in the atomic blast which has burned the skin on his back and therefore he now sees God as a monster. 
  • Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den'en ni Shisu, 1974) by Terayama Shuji and with Suga Kantaro, Takano Hiroyuki and Hara Sen. Terayama Shuji was one of Japan's most important avant-garde poets of the postwar period. He was also active as director and this dreamlike film, about his own youth, is his masterwork. The location is the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, around Mt. Osore which in folklore marks the entrance to hell. Blind mediums called itako summon the souls of the dead here. The film tells about an adolescent boy trying to escape his overprotective mother and the traditional values of the superstitious countryside, but also pays attention to budding eroticism - he is in love with the married woman next door - and to his brush with the frightening world outside in the form of a visiting circus. People are larger than life: most characters have white faces like in Kabuki, gossiping women wear sinister eye patches, a dwarf inflates the body of a fat circus lady with the help of a bicycle pump. The clocks in the village are chiming incessantly. Halfway through the film, we suddenly meet the protagonist as a middle-aged man, who lives in Shinjuku, and is making a film about his youth. He returns to his native village and confronts his own younger self. In the film he is making he has pretended things were more beautiful than in reality (the boy escapes with the woman next door). Now he shows events in another way, but there is no guarantee this is more real. Can one change one's past? Are all memories of one's youth true? Are we perhaps unconsciously beautifying our own biographies? 
  • In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korrida, 1976) by Oshima Nagisa and with Fuji Tatsuya and Matsuda Eiko. A highly controversial film about an obsessive sexual relationship, that still is forbidden in Japan in its uncensored form, but also a serious study of possessive love. Although the two protagonists do not much else but engage in sex, the camera is never voyeuristic on behalf of the audience - this not a "pink movie." Instead, the filming is cold and clinical and this explicit film is in fact the least erotic movie you can imagine. Based on a shocking incident from 1936, in which a woman called Abe Sada killed her lover by erotic asphyxiation and then cut-off his penis. Abe was imprisoned after a frantically reported court case and released after six years. She became both a symbol of a woman dangerous to men and a feminist icon. The film leaves the biographical details out and concentrates on the power dynamics in the love relation between the servant Sada and her master Kichi. Initially, Kichi is aggressive and Sada passive, but gradually as the "bullfight" (the "korrida" of the Japanese title) progresses, these roles are reversed. In the end, Sada makes love to Kichi with a knife between her teeth. Sadomasochism increases but is only indirectly willed - the intention is rather the indefinite prolongation of pleasure. Each episode of the film - set in the rooms of various inns as a sort of theatrical spaces - centers on a different sexual encounter or game, such as a mock marriage in the presence of a group of geisha that develops into an orgy. The film is different from Oshima's previous work as there seems no overt political intention here. However, while the protagonists are huddled together under their futon, outside soldiers are shown marching to the war front as Japan is sinking into fascism. The obsession of the country meets the obsession of the lovers: while Sada and Kichi pull each other down into a morbid and death-obsessed "love" tunnel without exit, so also the country is sucked into a spiral with destruction as only possible outcome. It is not an easy film: I found it just as claustrophobic and difficult to watch as The Embryo Hunts in Secret. But one can't deny its cult status.