Category Archives: Genre: Drama

Military Spy School

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Military Spy School (Japan, 1974)

Another take on the Nakano Spy School which trained spies during WWII. The students were taught aikido, ninjutsu, weapons, explosives, foreign languages etc. Sonny Chiba already starred in the superb 1968 action/noir Army Intelligence 33, which was based on the same topic. This 1970s version is less successful, despite a big name cast (Chiba, Bunta Sugawara, Isao Natsuyagi etc.). Director Junya Sato adds more realism, but cuts down the action and loses the elegance of the ’68 version. This version is also more focused on the theme than any specific character, hence it doesn’t really have a main character. It’s not a bad movie, but one feel it should’ve been better considering the cast and interesting topic.

* Original title: ルパング島の奇跡 陸軍中野学校 (Lubang tô no kiseki: Rikugun Nakano gakkô)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan)

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Memoir of Japanese Assassins

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Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Japan, 1969)

This is an odd beast in Sonny Chiba’s filmography, a powerful political thriller that chronicles real life assassinations from Japan’s recent history. The film opens with a seemingly endless cavalcade of violent assassinations, with superstars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara popping up just for a few minutes in their own segments to cut off someone’s head, stab someone to death, or blow someone into pieces.

About 20 minutes into the film the storyline has finally reached the early 1930s, with Sonny Chiba standing in front of the court, accused of terrorism. This is when the bloodshed finally comes to an end. For the next 100 minutes there would not be a single killing as the film takes its time to show how an ordinary young man (Chiba) grew into a political assassin.

Chiba’s character, Sho Onuma, is an ill but loyal employee at a factory whose honest owner is driven to a bankruptcy by corrupt officials. Chiba is left without a job, and soon later his love interest dies from an illness. Following a failed suicide attempt, Chiba films a new home with a charismatic priest (Chiezo Kataoka). The man is Nissho Inoue, whom the world would later come to know as the leader of the ultra nationalist League of Blood organization.

At 142 minutes, Memoir of Japanese Assassins packs quite a bit of interesting philosophical discussions on terrorism and offers a provocative, non-judgemental view on its extremist characters. It would be easy to see it as an ultra-rightist political statement, but that wasn’t director Sadao Nakajima’s intention according to his own words. In facts, he has expressed his disappointment over such interpretations. I tend to believe him as the film comes out much less a rightist statement than general antipathy for corruption and exploitation of the weak. It also helps that more than 40 years have passed since the film was made.

That being said, it should be noted that nearly all historical figures killed in the film – that is daimyo Naosuke Ii, statesman Toshimichi Okubo, politician Shigenobu Okuma, communications minister Toru Hoshi, prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, and businessmen Zenjiro Yasuda, Junnosuke Inoue, and Dan Takuma – had something to do with the Japanese government’s attempts to modernize Japan and open the country to foreign influences. The February 26 Incident, which is also covered in the film, also aimed at bringing down a Western-minded government. Those such political connections are never explicitly stated in the film, most audiences at the time would surely have been aware of them.

What added to the films volatility was that its protagonist, Sho Onuma, was still alive as consulted the filmmakers (he had been sentenced for life, but pardoned in 1940). The Japanese Liberal Democrat Party tried to halt the film production and managed to censor parts of the final act, which contains passages from February 26 Incident leader Asaichi Isobe’s diary. Toei took advantage of the controversy, releasing a teaser trailer that showed Onuma on the set advising Chiba.

For Chiba Memoir of Japanese Assassins was no doubt what he had been looking for: a powerful crime drama with a very strong scrip and good characters. He had been in several mediocre crime dramas (North Sea Chivalry, 1967; The Tale of Kawachi Chivalry, 1967) where he tended to be best thing about an otherwise lazy production. In Memoir of Japanese Assassins Chiba gives one of his best performances, for which he won an acting award at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was awarded the same year.

Director Nakajima was a highly uneven filmmaker who worked in almost any popular genre from pink films to samurai movies. Many of his movies are routine efforts, but some are genuinely inspired and well directed. Memoir of Japanese Assassins remains one of his best and most thoughtful films. Adding to the film’s strength is composer Isao Tomita’s epic score, which plays on repeat. The mix of politics, character drama and almost splatterific violence may be too much for some viewers, but for others this is an unpolished gem.

* Original title: Nihon ansatsu hiroku (日本暗殺秘録)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry

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Tale of Kawachi Chivalry (Japan, 1967)
Sonny Chiba stars in this misleadingly marketed semi-ninkyo piece set in the early Showa era. Chiba plays a young man returning to his hometown. He begins working as chef, but he seems more interested in fooling around and picking fights. Enter yakuza film regular Bin Amatsu, and we have a conflict between the honest townspeople and corrupt criminals.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry basically takes the typical ninkyo-yakuza film story, but strips it from the gloss and glorification. In a way, director Ryuichi Takamori was going the same direction as Kinji Fukasaku and Junya Sato with their late 60s works. Unfortunately, in the hands of the less talented Takamori it rarely translated into anything very interesting. Even more problematic was that his films were often missing the more complex themes of honour and obligation that could be found in the best ninkyo films.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry is not a terrible film – Chiba is alright, the crew is experienced, and there’s a pretty exciting rickshaw race – but it’s among Chiba’s least memorable starring roles. The film’s magnificent poster, which shows Chiba armed with katana, is also very misleading: there is almost no action in the film, and Chiba never picks up that sword.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry and North Sea Chivalry could be seen as related works, although they had different screenwriters. They both utilize a ninkyo-like premise, but in a way make it more contemporary and realistic, and are not really ninkyo films. Both films feature ordinary men as main characters instead of yakuza, who only appear as villains. Unfortunately neither film excels as a character drama despite being story driven and stripped of action. Both were directed by Takamori – who was the walking definition of mediocre – and starred Chiba, who was easily the best thing about both films. Chiba and Takamori collaborated a total of 10 times, including the Legendary Lullaby (Game of Chance) series, which also resembles these two films but were more true to ninkyo cinema by making the protagonist a lone yakuza with a kid.

* Original title: Kawachi yuukyoden ((河内遊侠伝))
* Director: Ryuchi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Angry Chiba

Furious Chiba

Enraged Chiba

Amatsu and Murota

Surprised Chiba

Frustrated Chiba

Anxious Chiba

Breathless Chiba

Crazy Chiba

North Sea Chivalry

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North Sea Chivalry (Japan, 1967)
Sonny Chiba gives a solid dramatic performance in an otherwise uninspired semi-ninkyo drama. The storyline follows a struggling fisherman clan (lead by old man Kanjuro Arashi) that tries not to get in trouble with the local yakuza (with Tomisaburo Wakayama as the leader). The film struggles to find any kind of focus to the extent that there is no obvious main character. Chiba, however, is by far the best thing about the film as the clan leader’s son, who rebels against his father. He doesn’t participate in any action scenes, but his performance is solid and his character is easily the best written in the film.

* Original title: Hokkai yukyoden (北海遊侠伝)
* Director: Ryuchi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba and Reiko Ohara

Kanjuro Arashi

Tomisaburo Wakayama

Bitches of the Night

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Bitches of the Night (Japan, 1966)
A well made, atmospheric, although remarkably tame exploitation melodrama about a playboy bartender (Tatsuo Umemiya) who pretends to be gay in order to approach women. He is in cahoots with another opportunist, a young woman (Mako Midori) who trying to seduce a rich married man. Their attempts at making easy money can only end tragically. This is a rather aged morality tale about the sinful life in urban metropolis, but captures the era, the bars and the cityscapes very nicely. It’s also becomes quite interesting and touching when Umemiya fools a naive country girl (heartbreakingly played by Reiko Ohara) into living with him. Sonny Chiba makes a very brief appearance as a policeman looking for his sister. He only has two scenes. The film was part of the “Night / Yoru” series, which consisted of very loosely linked movies where Umemiya plays pimps or other such characters.

* Original title: Yoru no mesuinu ( 夜の牝犬)
* Director: Shinji Murayama
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: None. Review Format: TV

Umemiya on the right

Chiba as a policeman

Chiba

Ohara

Midori

The Navy

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The Navy (Japan, 1963)
A tale of two best friends in the WWII era Japan. Takao (Sonny Chiba) is a young man enthusiastic about joining the navy to fight for his country. He convinces his best friend Shinji (Kinya Kitaoji) to join him. As it turns out, however, Takao’s poor health prevents him from entering the navy while his friend is chosen instead. As time goes by, Takao becomes a painter and changes his mind about the meaningfulness of war and fighting, while his friend goes the opposite path. Meanwhile Takao’s sister falls in love with Shinji. This is a well made war time drama with decent characters and good performances. It is especially enjoyable to see Chiba in a very atypical quiet drama role. This is by far one of his most restrained performances, yet his usual energy and youthful charm are constantly bubbling under. Although he is not the film’s main character – that is Shinji – his role is pretty major and easily the film’s best.

* Original title: Kaigun (海軍)
* Director: Shinji Murayama
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Young men eager to fight for their country

But only Kitaoji gets chosen

Disappointed Chiba…

who later finds a few life as an artist

unfortunately we do not get see when he drew that picture…

Gambler’s Love

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Gambler’s Love (Japan, 1963)
Sonny Chiba is a young gambler on the run. He pretends to be an innocent student, and is taken in by an honorable yakuza (Hideo Murata) in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Chiba later falls in love with a beautiful musical actress who is also being looked after by the yakuza clan. This is a decent, very old fashioned period yakuza/romance/drama. Although Chiba is not really the main character – he’s the second billed actor – he is very much the film’s heart and has a major role. Hideo Murata (not to be confused with Hideo Murota, who also appears in the film) plays the benevolent yakuza leader. He was not only a popular actor during the early years of the yakuza film genre, but also a singer; hence we have him singing in this film as well. The film ends with a massive 3 vs. 30 fight which also contains a pretty long take sideways scrolling take – the same kind that movies like Oldboy would use decades later.

* Original title: Asakusa no kyoukaku (浅草の侠客)
* Director: Kiyoshi Saeki
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Video on Demand (Japan) (No subtitles)

Murata and Chiba

Chiba talking to a girl

The evil yakuza underlings who are after Chiba

More Chiba

Bruised Chiba stands by his love

Final fight

Tale of A Company Boss: Part 5

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Tale of A Company Boss: Part 5 (Japan, 1963)
The 5th (or 6th, depending on how you count) part in a series of salaryman comedies. Old man Eitarô Shindô, young fella Katsuo Nakamura and future pinky violence comic relief Toru Yuri run a travel agency whose latest customer turns out to be bunch of mischievous elementary school kids. They end up travelling the country with the singing and goofing kids while Nakamura falls in love with their teacher (Hitomi Nakahara from Hepcat in the Funky Hat) and Shindô and Yuri have the hots for a geisha. It’s not a bad film for what it is: fans of the genre should be entertained, even though the film is hardly exceptional. Fans of Chiba should be warned, though: his role as Nakamura’s old student pal is only about 45 seconds.

* Original title: Jirocho shacho to Ishimatsu shacho: Yasugi bushidochu (次郎長社長と石松社員 安来ぶし道中)
* Director: Masaharu Segawa
* Chiba’s role: Cameo role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Shindô

Yuri with a geisha

Customers

Shindô and Yuri

Chiba

Chiba with Nakahara

Nakamura and Nakahara

Gambler

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Gambler (Japan, 1962)
Meiji era set gambling/family melodrama – not a yakuza film like Toei’s better known gambler films – by veteran Daisuke Ito, who started directing films in the 1920s. The film looks and feels charmingly old fashioned: especially the beautiful sets seemingly built on a mountain or a big hill facing Osaka are atmospheric. Solid execution all-around. However, it’s also very much a teary melodrama – a genre not made for this viewer – with crying scenes coming in ever increasing pace towards the end. Sonny Chiba has a relatively small role as the protagonist’s (Rentaro Mikuni) apprentice. Most of his scenes are during the last 20 minutes and don’t give him much to do.

* Original title: Osho (王将)
* Director: Daisuke Ito
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Mikuni

Chiba on the right

Chiba

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 7)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 7: July 4th (Friday)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Nihon ansatsu hiroku) (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)

Sadao Nakajima was one of Toei’s seminal genre film directors. He worked in almost any genre that was popular at the time, and delivered competent films that ranged from ninja adventures to sexploitation and yakuza movies. He had, however, also an urge to deliver something more ambitious, as evidenced by his surprising 1973 visit to Art Theatre Guild where he directed the gangster drama Aesthetics of a Bullet. Memoir of Japanese Assassins is another odd beast is his filmography. This all star political slaughter fest chronicles murders committed by assassins in different eras, all based on reality. Stars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara pop up for their 5 minute episodes only to cut someone’s head off, stab someone to death or blow someone into pieces with a hand grenade.

The seemingly endless cavalcade of ultra-violent kills finally comes to an end about 25 minutes into the film. This is when the film finds its main story: an impressive tale of a young man slowly transforming into a political assassin. Sonny Chiba portrays this character; a youngster living in the middle of never ending poverty and misery. He eventually finds new home with a revolutionary group, which begins his long road to becoming a political assassin. This episode takes no less than 90 minutes of the film’s 142 minute running time, features almost no action or bloodshed, and gives Chiba more screen time than all the other stars combined.

Chiba is quite good in the leading role, despite slightly overdoing his most emotional scenes. He actually won an acting award for his performance at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was also awarded the same year. Yakuza film queen Junko Fuji also appears in a seminal supporting role in this episode. Once their story concludes, the film still continues with two more short episodes (one of them featuring stock footage from the earlier Chiba film The Escape, 1962). As a whole the film is a bit uneven, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and occasionally epic (partly thanks to composer Isao Tomita, whose score plays on repeat) movie. Easily recommended!


 

Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)

The second film for Friday was a real rarity: the 1980 special effects extravaganza Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (literally Tokyo Great Earthquake Magnitude 8.1). This generously budgeted TV film premiered on Nihon TV in 1980, and completely disappeared from the face of earth until it was screened in a special event in Tokyo last year. That screening was reportedly so popular that only a fraction of the willing customers were able to obtain a ticket. Cinema Vera gave the film no less than three screening days, during which it was seen from a relatively worn out 16 mm print, which would of course be the original format.

As the title suggests, it’s a disaster movie based on the premise of a giant earthquake hitting in Tokyo. This fear stems from real life: Tokyo has been destroyed by earthquakes several times, most recently in 1923 when more than 140 000 people died and over 400 000 buildings were destroyed. When it comes to Japanese cinema the genre may not seen very common – a couple of exceptions aside there aren’t many Japanese disaster movies – however, it closely relates to monster movies and other tokusatsu epics that have long traditions in Japan. It was a short way from giant monsters stamping Tokyo to a natural disasters creating similar cinematic destruction.

Indeed, a couple of shots in Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 seem so familiar that they just might be old Godzilla sets put into new use. That wouldn’t be surprising considering many of the filmmakers, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects director Koichi Kawakita, and co-production company Toho, had their background in Godzilla films. The fine, even if obvious, miniature work is actually the best thing about the film. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, like a passenger plane flying over Tokyo that has turned into a giant inferno, and dawn in the destroyed metropolis.

As a character drama Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 falls flat. All the usual clichés from helpless grandmother to dumb children and even animals escaping at the wrong moment are included, not to mention characters discussing how terrible it would be if an earthquake hit Tokyo just a few hours before it really happens. That is quite disappointing considering the film was directed by Kiyoshi Nishimura, who had helmed interesting thrillers and existential action films like The Creature Called Man (1970) and Hairpin Circus (1972) for Toho in the 1970s. Perhaps he just couldn’t help the screenplay.

Sonny Chiba plays the starring role; however, he doesn’t have much else to do than run back and forth in the special effects shots, and worry about supporting characters constantly getting in trouble. It’s not an especially physical role since most of the effects are make-believe. His most memorable scene involves blowing up a door while taking cover inside a safe. Yutaka Nakajima, who appeared in some earlier Chiba films like The Executioner (1974), plays the female lead, but her role is very forgettable as well. There are a few other supporting actors as well, but amusingly a great lack of extras. It seems the entire budget went to special effects since there are only a handful of people in Tokyo and they miraculously run into each other throughout the film.

Because of its rarity Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 will remain to be sought after movie. It’s a decent special effects show that probably deserves to be seen by genre fans, especially for its nostalgia value, but it’s hardly a great movie. For fans of Chiba it’s passable viewing, but not among his most memorable roles.

As a side note; the film’s budget was 150 million yen, which was five times higher than the episode budget for the famous cop-action series Seibu Keisatsu (which is still fondly remembered for its insane action scenes full of car wrecking and explosions) that was screening on TV around the same time. By the 1980s many of the former actions stars, like Yujiro Ishihara, Tetsuya Watari, and Chiba himself were mostly working on TV. Chiba had already starred in hundred of TV episodes in various different shows since the 1960s, like Key Hunter (1967-1973) and The Bodyguard (1974). In the 1980s television became his primary employer as well. It was a great era of epic small screen action entertainment that often rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the theatrical films. Nothing like it exists on Japanese TV anymore.