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.