Thursday, 29 May 2014

Old New Worlds:
June 1965.

Skipping over the much-ballyhooed 150th issue extravaganza (which I don’t have a copy of), our next visit to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds brings us to June 1965, with a new, slightly more trendy cover design in full effect, showcasing an agreeably abstract illustration that could be seen as prefiguring the impending onrush of psychedelia, at a push.

Not only is the illustration uncredited, as per usual for NW, but it is also entirely unrepresentative of Barrington Bayley’s cover story – a mildly fascinating little tale that makes for a brave choice to open an issue of New Worlds with. “This story may not at first seem to be SF of the usual kind,” the editors advise, “but read on, read on…”. And indeed, partisans of NW’s brand of ‘thinking man’s SF’ might well have been perturbed when the story opens with the haughty commander of an Elfen galleon navigating the misty oceans of some fantasy kingdom with a crew of Troll galley-slaves. Personally, I was so surprised when skimming over the opening pages that I immediately took the editors’ advice and sat down to read the damn thing.

As the high fantasy type business rambles on, with the Elf Lord reflecting on the destruction of his race’s lands and the rebellion of their Troll slaves, and taunting his human captive with meals of soft and insubstantial Elf bread, I, like many contemporary readers presumably, found myself just waiting for the big reveal. Is Bayley gonna drop a few clues to hip us to this being Earth’s distant past, or far future? Or better yet, some kind of meta-textural type thing about a writer trapped in his own fiction, or a holo-deck style hallucination, maybe..? Which is it gonna be?

Those are indeed the general lines that the splendidly named Barrington B. is thinking along, but, very much in keeping with the rather nebulous style of new wave SF that New Worlds was already making its own by this point, his realisation of this wholly predictable genre-shift is neither as crude nor as linear as readers might have expected. I won’t give it all away here, but suffice to say, ‘The Ship of Disaster’ turns out to be an ambiguous and rather beautiful little story, a very well written piece that hints at a number of vast cosmic schemes without ever fully signing off on any of them, keeping its mysteries intact and instead letting us drift off into speculative reverie.

Perfect mid-‘60s New Worlds stuff in other words, although apparently not everyone at the time agreed. Whilst the lurch toward the experimental that would overtake the magazine in subsequent years is still in its early stages here, the letters pages in this issue still overflow with revolt.

“Aren’t we getting a little off the point?,” thunders the I-swear-I’m-not-making-this-up-worthy T.B. Pulvertaft, B.A., BChir of City Hospital, Gladstone Road, Exeter:

“Since you have taken over NEW WORLDS an atmosphere of obsessive PENGUIN NEW WRITING has become apparent. The fact that a story vibrates with obscure meaning and ends in a crystalline, nebulous web of obscurity in a social extrapolation of present day society does not make it ‘Good Literature’, however hard it may appear to be trying to. Your job is to please the customers (and don't throw up your increased circulation at me) and to do this you must provide an alternate reality in your plot-forms. And more than a touch of the old cliché ‘sense of wonder’, which must not be confused with the ‘sense of utter bewilderment’ you have succeeded in conjuring in me in recent issues.”

Interestingly (or otherwise), a quick google reveals that T.B. Pulvertaft actually wrote extensively on the subject of cardiology, so presumably when he gave his stated address as a hospital he did so as a member of staff rather than a long-term inmate of some kind. Anyway, in regard to his views on science fiction at least, I suspect he might have found a soul-mate in the form of Mrs. Elizabeth French Briscoe of Brighton Road, Dublin;

“My blood chilled when I read this month’s directive (NWSF 148) from Commissar Moorcock, wherein he proclaims a bleak austerity regime bereft of space stories,” 
“Mr Moorcock has said that he want to attract new readers. I suggest that the way to do so is to offer what SF alone can give: the space story. Tired, sophisticated old men with jaded palates (who have read all the SF in the world) may need to seek new titillations, but please remember the needs of simple but vivacious girls who have hitched their wagons to the stars.”

I don’t know whether we’ll be hearing more from Mrs. Briscoe in future, but I like the cut of her jib.

Meanwhile, “J.G. Ballard worries me,” confides Richard Gordon of Buckie, Banffshire, Scotland;

“So far as SF goes, he could easily be one of the finest writers yet he persists in retilling the same ground all over again. The Burning World – very well written and readable, yet it is little more than The Drowned World in reverse.”

An easy laugh, but also a good point from Mr. Gordon, I think. Even after all these years, his letter got me thinking about how Ballard – like that other NW fringe favourite William Burroughs – was mining a style so unusual and ahead of its time that he basically could spend much of his career endlessly reiterating the same themes, as sections of his audience continually struggled to get to grips with them.

Elsewhere in NW151’s editorial content, other controversies rage. For some reason, the writer Charles Platt pops up, contributing an unnecessarily vicious takedown of Brian Aldiss’s novel ‘Earthworks’, which he describes as “..a monotonous diary of a schizoid hypochondriac of dubious intelligence who is pushed around throughout the book, […] by Higher Powers, until finally discovering an Answer which was obvious to the reader two chapters previously.” Given the trenchant nature of this piece, one suspects a bit of a longer term Aldiss / Platt beef might be in progress, perhaps? (Go get him, Brian!)

In a longer than usual reviews column, the elusive James Colvin gives a hearty thumbs up to the aforementioned ‘The Drowned World’, Asimov’s ‘The Martian Way’ and several anthologies, as well as discussing his mixed feelings about the work of Poul Anderson. Possibly the most interesting thing here is his claim that Anderson’s ‘The Broken Sword’ is “..possibly the only ‘sword & sorcery’ novel I shall ever enjoy”. A pretty surprising admission from the future author of thousands of pages-worth of Elric and Hawkmoon chronicles, but… oh yeah, we’re talking about the tastes of “James Colvin” here, aren’t we?

Another surprising claim comes from Langdon Jones, who, under the heading ‘WHERE’S IT ALL GOING’, glumly states his belief that “ classic novel that is purely science fictional in nature has been written in the sixties”. What give, Langdon? Even leaving aside writers like Ballard, whom he rules out in his next sentence as “not SF in the strictest sense”, off the top of my head (and with a little help from wikipedia) I still count Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’, Walter M. Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Liebowitz’, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘The Sirens of Titan’ and Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ as having been published between 1960 and 1965, to name but a few. So I really don’t know where Jones is coming from here to be honest, although who knows, perhaps his claim seemed more reasonable at the time of writing, prior to the universal canonisation of the aforementioned works? Another slightly underrated classic of the ’60-’65 period that I’d go to bat for any day is John Brunner’s ‘Telepathist’, and Jones offers an equally positive appraisal of that one later in his column too, so I’ll let him off the hook for now.

So, those are the main points of interest I took from NW151. After all that palaver, there scarcely seems much point in going over Moorcock’s wishy-washy ‘how do we define SF?’ editorial, or noting the rather mystifying science column (headline: ‘GAS LENSES DEVELOPED FOR COMMUNICATION BY LASER’), but I’ll leave you with a few intriguing notices from the small ads, and a brief mention of my disappointment that the character limit in blogger’s ‘Labels’ box won't allow me to start a new tag for “simple but vivacious girls who have hitched their wagons to the stars”.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi The Fugitive
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1963)

For an itinerant blind man who has presumably spent the majority of his spare time achieving his uncanny mastery of swordsmanship, Zatoichi sure has a lot of hobbies, and carries a wide variety of talents up his sleeve. Whether in the field of massage, music or fishing, he’s already proven himself a force to be reckoned with, and now ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’ begins with our man cheerfully entering a sumo wrestling championship, where of course he embarrasses the local contenders by beating all comers and walking away with the prize.

As usual, this gets our hero in hot water, and he only discovers that a yakuza gang who were rigging the matches have put a price on his head when an inexperienced young warrior turns up to try to kill him for the reward money. Regretful as ever at having been forced to slay this young lad, Ichi sets out to find the boy’s mother, so as to atone for his actions.

Turns out he needn’t have bothered: the dead warrior’s mum is a thick-skinned brood mother to the local yakuza, who takes her son’s demise in her stride (“he was always useless son”, “at least he died honourably..”, etc.), leaving Ichi temporarily hanging around in a town that, whilst it may seem bright and happy on the surface, is absolutely riddled with unsavoury underworld intrigue.

Even the owners of the inn in which Ichi is staying are a yakuza-affiliated family who used to run a profitable gambling joint, until their allegiance to a ‘banished’ former gang boss saw them knocked down from their lofty position, and forced instead to run a humble guesthouse as the father covertly plots his patron’s return. Further straining the already tense atmosphere, Otane (Masayo Banri), Ichi’s sweetheart from the first film, is staying there too. Turns out she didn’t marry a quiet carpenter after all - in fact her husband is Tanakura (Jutaro Hojo), a surly, ill-mannered ronin with a drinking problem and bit of a Mifune kinda look about him. Oh dear.

Trapped again in very much the same situation she was in when we encountered her in Tale of Zatoichi, poor Otane is deep into her doomed Enka singer victim trip by this stage. “Being a woman is a serious business”, she laments, “blowing in the wind from one man to another”. This being a chambara / ninkyo yakuza film, such expressions of doomed fatalism send just as clear a message regarding her likely fate as a soldier in a war film showing off pictures of his family back home before going into battle.

Though the plotting here is just as convoluted, digressive and downbeat as director Tanaka’s earlier New Tale of Zatoichi, ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’ is nonetheless a far brighter and more visually appealing film than its predecessor, with dazzlingly bright blue skies and picturesque summer landscapes accompanying hearty scenes of rural summer festivals and associated merry-making. Chishi Makiura’s cinematography is, as usual, first class, and the whole movie captures the atmosphere of a sweltering June day perfectly. The title sequence alone – in which Ichi trudges into town, wiping his brow, before getting mixed up in the crowd at the sumo tournament – is assured and iconic filmmaking of the highest order, with Akira Ifukube ‘s music further adding to the sense that whatever happens here, we’re in safe hands.

Less satisfactorily, ‘..Fugitive’ is also the first of the Zatoichi films that fails to really reel us in with a big, emotional hook that directly affects our hero’s future, and, in the absence of such an anchor, things quickly become pretty vague and confusing as the various plot elements pile up, and I confess that I rather lost the thread of what was going on through much of the film’s middle section. Why for instance does Ichi, who is as yet not formally involved in the local gangs’ disputes, choose to march into the gang bosses’ big pow-wow and make a scene, right after Otane’s surly samurai husband has just done the same? Well, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, so perhaps it’s best just to go with the flow and enjoy Katsu’s characteristic grand-standing, regardless of the narrative purpose it’s supposed to serve. (The skit he pulls off here with a dice and a flask of sake is a hoot – one of the series' best swordplay stunts to date.)

Amongst other interlinked diversions, Ichi spends a lot of time here looking after Boss Sakichi, a gormless youngster who has been forced against his will into gang leadership, helping the craven youth both his yakuza business and his love-life, and in the process fighting an initial duel with the glowering Tanakura – a hair-raising skirmish that sees the samurai actually succeeding in landing a blow on Ichi, cutting his cheek; a shocking event, given our hero’s usual invincibility, and a sign that he has found another worthy adversary.

Meanwhile, Onobu (Miwa Takada), the inn-keeper's daughter and subject of Sakichi’s affections, takes Ichi to the location of her family’s old gambling house – a beautiful river-side ruin, apparently shot on a genuine location, that goes on to provide a memorable setting for the film’s closing battle.
And speaking of which, well, let’s put it this way: if the first hour or so of ‘..Fugitive’ seems like pretty standard Zatoichi business, make sure you stay tuned for the finale, because it’s a real doozy - probably the most astonishing (and violent) extended sequence we’ve seen in the series thus far.

A frantic and chaotic confrontation, with many volatile elements in play, this showdown begins with Ichi cornered in the ruined house along with the craven child-boss Sakichi, the furious Onobu, and the kidnapped Otane, whilst big, bad boss Toru Abe’s swordsmen, including a sniper with a rifle, mass outside, and Otane’s vengeful samurai husband lurks in the sand dunes, determined to have another crack at taking down the legendary Zatoichi.

This tense siege culminates in the samurai’s shocking slaying of his wife Otane as she begs him not to go after Ichi – a horribly cruel move aimed solely at drawing Ichi out from his hiding place, a goal in which it succeeds admirably. Upon being informed of what has happened to the woman he once loved, Ichi totally loses his shit in a manner we have never before witnessed up to this point, ploughing into the assembled yakuza like a whirling dervish, killing dozens of men and leaving the landscape scattered with corpses in a frenzied, cathartic rampage.

When he eventually reaches Tanakura, the two men’s final battle becomes a real gritted teeth business, the filmmakers milking the tension for all it’s worth, as the combatants are convincingly presented as an even match. Anyone looking for a clear demonstration of the extent to which duels in samurai films influenced the equivalent scenes in Spaghetti Westerns will find all the evidence they need here. For a moment, when Ichi is pushed to the ground, his sword broken, it even looks like he might be a goner. Of course, he isn’t, but the fact the film can make us think that, even for one gasping moment, is quite an achievement.

In his dying breaths, the cruel samurai bad-mouths Otane, saying that it was her idea to set a trap for Ichi and claim the bounty on his head, trying to besmirch Ichi’s memory of her forever. Are his words truth or lies? With both parties dead, we will never know, but the sentimental Zatoichi is buying none of it. “Otane was a beautiful person!”, he shouts at his opponent’s corpse before walking away.

After this exceptionally grim yet fiendishly gripping finale, ‘Zatoichi The Fugitive’ ends, rather incongruously, with a cheesy, upbeat closing scene that sees our hero bidding farewell to the survivors of the conflict, placing Onobu’s hand in Sakichi’s and wishing the couple a happy future (the young boss’s craven treachery apparently already forgotten), before he makes his usual exit, this time laughing heartily, and even performing a merry folk dance as he skips off happily down the road.

A strange ending, but perhaps one reflecting the fact that, in spite of the cruel and unnecessary death of a woman he loved and his ensuing instigation of a crazed massacre, this film has seen our hero relatively unscathed by the kind of emotional apocalypse that the scriptwriters put him through in previous instalments. Well, either that or he’s just getting used to it I suppose. Whatever the case, he was actually allowed a surprisingly long time to catch his breath before ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ hit cinemas over a year later, in October 1964.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Norifumi Suzuki
(1933 – 2014)

“But entertainment, see... if you look back at its history in Japan, it's been anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, since the Edo Period. That's precisely what thrills the audience. You've got to have that element somewhere. The reason why the general public seeks out stories of revolution is because they're searching for some kind of catharsis. They're looking for an escape from oppression.

Of course, it was different with Shochiku audiences. But with us, Toei audiences, they wanted anti-authoritarian movies, no question. That was a given. Because the reason why I feel so strongly about these films, about mass entertainment, is because the real world is no fun for us... and I want to toss a rock at authority. But listen, my films aren't exactly masterpieces... half the time, they're nothing but pure fun. Amusement!”

Some sad news reached me on the trans-continental grapevine this weekend regarding the passing of a director who I think it’s safe to say is one of the heroes of this blog (not to mention the uncontested world champion of making films with wacky sub-titles), the one and only Norifumi Suzuki.

(N.B. - Though his name is sometimes romanised as ‘Noribumi’, which I suspect to be more correct, I’ll go with ‘Norifumi’ in this post, just to remain consistent with previous discussions of him on this blog.)

Writing a post about Norifumi the person is difficult, because whilst I have been consistently fascinated (as well as entertained, astounded and occasionally sickened) by his films, I still know almost nothing at all about the man behind them. Whilst some of his films have definitely picked up a bit of a reputation as ‘cult classics’ in the West, his name remains relatively little known, and, to my knowledge, no one has ever really taken the time to translate an interview with him into English or undertake any critical or biographical writing about him, meaning that, personality-wise, he remains a complete unknown.

Given this dearth of information, you can imagine my surprise and frustration when I wandered into a chain bookstore in Tokyo when I was over there in January, and discovered that Japanese speakers can pick up the guy’s goddamn autobiography, which was proudly displayed amongst the top-selling items in the Cinema section. One of many occasions during my visits to Japan when I could almost weep at my pathetic monolingual status.

Anyway, with such resources remaining unavailable to me, my sole source of Norifumi knowledge remains an online translation of a fourteen minute youtube interview, which I found here. Thankfully, it’s pretty concise and revealing sorta stuff, so quotes from the translation will be used at the beginning and end of this post. That aside though, we’ll have to build a picture of the guy solely through his movies - which suits me, because I always seem to have a lot to say about them.

My own introduction to the ways of Norifumi Suzuki actually came quite a while ago, before I’d really started to develop much of an interest in weird cinema, when, inspired by a highly misleading blurb in our local art cinema’s monthly listings which presented the film as a kind of wham bam, must-see Grindhouse-style action spectacular, a friend and I attended a one-off screening of 1974’s ‘School of the Holy Beast’. Bad move. Largely unschooled in the ways of global exploitation cinema, never mind the particularly savage Japanese iterations thereof, we emerged pale, quivering and speechless from this sordid epic of Sadean, pink eiga-style nunsploitation, causing a mutual friend to greet us with words to the effect of “Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you guys?”

Whilst I have subsequently made a full recovery from the trauma of this screening (well, if you can take the existence of this blog as evidence of recovery, at least), my poor friend remains a little scarred to this day, and is still extremely reluctant to commit to a viewing of any film I’ve recommended, lest the terrible nightmare of sadistic Japanese nun porn begin again. (An understandable concern, to be honest.)

The irony here is though, if the cinema had instead chosen to show pretty much any other example of the fantastic run of films Suzuki made in the first half of the ‘70s, well, I guess we might still have been a bit unnerved by some of the sexual content, but basically I think we’d have got on-board with it and had a blast. I’ve written before here about the spirit of no-holds-barred craziness that seemed to characterise the output of Toei studios in the early ‘70s, and, more than any of their other directors, it was Norifumi-san who really made this style his own.

It is interesting to note though that whilst his films in this era seem to embody an “I couldn’t give a FUCK” spirit that suggests the presence of a speed-huffing, cop-hating teenager behind the camera, Suzuki was actually a seasoned industry professional by the time he initiated the Sukeban/Girl Boss series in 1971, and it is this underlying technical proficiency that keeps his work engaging even in its stupidest and most ragged moments.

What little biographical info is available to me reveals that Suzuki entered the film industry after dropping out of Kyoto’s prestigious Ritsumeikan University in 1956, joining Toei’s Kyoto division shortly thereafter, and working as an assistant director for a few years, until he moved up to scripting and directing in the mid-‘60s. He first made a big impact (as far as I know?) when he wrote the script for 1968’s ‘Red Peony Gambler’, a vehicle for his niece Junko Fuji, which proved successful enough to generate a total of eight sequels, most of them either scripted or supervised by Suzuki. He also directed the second film in the series (ranked as one of the best entries by Chris D’s Gun & Sword), and helmed two spin-offs starring a popular supporting character from the series, one of which bears the alluring translated title ‘Silk Hat Boss: The Short-Moustached Bear’.

I’ve yet to dig into the ‘Red Peony Gambler’ films (I have the first two buried somewhere in the ‘to watch’ pile), but from what I’ve read, they are often seen as breaking new ground in regard to allowing their female heroine to single-handedly hold her own in action sequences and sword fights, and have been singled out by several writers as a key influence on the veritable explosion of female action films and ‘pinky violence’ exploiters that followed over the next few years.

Viewed in hindsight after several years of watching every example of the form that I can get my hands on (I have no regrets.. well, maybe one or two, but let’s move on..), it’s easy to see the development of the Sukeban/Pinky Violence sub-genre as a bit of an arms race when it comes to the inclusion of sleaze and violence. Nikkatsu’s ‘Stray Cat Rock’ films, excellent and hard-hitting though the best entries may be, were relatively restrained in this regard, initially pitched more as youth / rock music films, and thus Toei’s competing ‘Delinquent Girl Boss’ series starring Reiko Oshida upped the ante, with a greater emphasis on organised crime and revenge-orientated action. These in turn were rendered thoroughly mild in comparison to the successor series Toei cooked up to replace them, and it is here that we meet Norifumi-san again, as he begins the astonishing run of films that would really put him on the map for fans of insane cinema with the staggering outburst of high octane deviancy that is Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack (1971).

As I’ve written extensively about that film before, I won’t repeat myself, but will simply say that if you’re unfamiliar with these ‘Girl Boss’ movies then, brace yourself, because they’re quite an experience. Suzuki directed three sequels to ‘Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’, all presumably thrown together at great speed, as very much befits his guerrilla film-making style: ‘Queen Bee’s Challenge’, ‘Girl Boss Guerrilla’ (both 1972) and the succinctly titled ‘Sukeban’ (aka ‘Girl Boss: Revenge’, 1973). All of these feature incredible moments and are well worth tracking down if you liked the first one, but their habit of slavishly reiterating the same formula and plot elements time after time means that the law of diminishing returns inevitably comes into play, and by the end of the fourth film, I think it was high time for the director to pull down the shutters and move on.

One of the most distinctive elements of the ‘Girl Boss’ films is their capacity to pull off jarring shifts in tone, as each follows a similar pattern of opening with half an hour or so of light-hearted action and bawdy sex comedy antics, before taking a darker turn for a middle section of yakuza-instigated violence and sexual humiliation, then pulling things together for a surprisingly serious final act that often takes in moments of genuine character development and emotional catharsis – a combination of conflicting elements that went on to define the uneasy ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ approach to the portrayal of women that underpins all of Suzuki’s best films.

In parallel with the Sukeban films, Suzuki also directed a number of period-set sex films for Toei (including ‘The Lustful Shogun and His 21 Concubines’ and ‘Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord’, both 1972), and these two threads of his work came together (so to speak) in 1973 to create what is arguably the director’s masterpiece, and probably one of the greatest exploitation films ever made (IMHO), ‘Ocho: Tale of a Rebellious Elder Sister’, better known in the West under the wholly appropriate title Sex & Fury.

Whether planned as a blood & boobs enhanced update of the ‘Red Peony Gambler’ formula, or as a middle-finger aimed at Toho’s ‘Lady Snowblood’ films (both speculation on my part), there is little doubt that ‘Sex & Fury’ is simply fucking brilliant, succeeding on every level that a film like this could conceivably aim at. From the moment Reiko Ike leaps naked from her bathtub to bloodily slaughter an army of yakuza, your jaw will hit the floor, and will likely remain there through most of the running time, as a positively epic array of libidinous mayhem unfolds, all of it realised in a vibrant and confident, pop-art infused cinematic style that matches and perhaps even surpasses that of subversive Japanese pop-cinema godhead Seijun Suzuki, whilst at the same time, a deep and conflicted dialogue about the nature of Japan’s place in the modern world sizzles away in the background. Just astonishing.

And, rounding out Norifumi’s phenomenally busy schedule during these years, we find yet another utterly raging series of transgressive and/or despicable bad girl focussed movies: the ‘Terrifying Girls’ High School’ series. Actually, our man only directed the first two of these four films, and thus far I’ve only managed to find one of them in sub-titled form, but boy is it a winner. Along with ‘Sex & Fury’, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom gets my vote for Suzuki’s best film, a cranked up chronicle of blood-curdling depravity, delinquent sisterhood and alternate world WIP weirdness that takes the anti-authoritarian streak that was bubbling under in the director’s earlier films and explodes it into a hellish howl in the face of official corruption, unthinking nationalism and societal conformity, culminating in a full-scale riot that plays out like Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’ as reimagined by Koji Wakamatsu, complete with a burning Japanese flag and riot police being beaten down by mini-skirted sukeban warriors.

Another theme that seems to run deeply through all the Norifumi Suzuki films I’ve seen is the mockery and general subversion of religious imagery, and that of Christianity in particular. I don’t know whether or not Suzuki was raised a Christian, but the fascination/repulsion with such imagery that he seems to crowbar into just about all of his films would certainly suggest as much, even as the disrespectful treatment frequently dished out to representatives of Buddhism and Shinto signposts a wider problem with organised religion in general. The ‘Girl Boss’ films overflow with hypocritical priests of all persuasions being blackmailed and humiliated, and both ‘Sex & Fury’ and ‘The Great Chase’ (1975) feature their heroines squaring off against corrupt, knife-wielding nuns. Even when the storyline doesn’t allow for any explicit reiteration of this theme, Suzuki, like Ken Russell, always seems to find room for this personal bugbear of his: in ‘Lynch Law Classroom’, Miki Sugimoto’s character is “the boss with the cross”, whilst the best sequence in the otherwise religion-free ‘Girl Boss: Revenge’ finds Reiko Ike attacking a yakuza boss with a crucifix-shaped flick-knife.

This all leads on of course to discussing ‘School of the Holy Beast’, perhaps Suzuki’s best known film for many in the West, although to be honest, I don’t have much to say about it right now, simply because I haven’t seen it since that aforementioned cinema screening all those years ago, and I don’t remember much about it beyond an all-pervasive feeling of sado-masochismic confinement and a strong blue & red colour scheme. Neither ‘nunsploitation’ or ‘women in chains’ movies are really my thing, so I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the idea of revisiting it, although I have a DVD-rip on hand somewhere that I’ll probably get around to at some point.

In the mid-‘70s, as the productivity of the Japanese popular film industry plummeted, Suzuki played a role in Toei’s post-‘Streetfighter’ shift toward making martial arts & pure action films aimed at an international market, providing characteristically barmy scripts for Sister Streetfighter (1974) and the surely-that-title-can’t-be-literal? Sonny Chiba vehicle ‘Karate Bullfighter’ (1977).

In 1975, he moved a little bit closer to the mainstream with ‘The Great Chase’, a ludicrous action-fest in which ‘Sister Streetfighter’ star Etsuko Shihomi plays a champion racing driver who is also a master-of-disguise secret agent on the trail of an international drug gang. I actually watched this one a few weeks ago, and whilst I think it is categorically impossible for a film with that plotline to fail to be a whole lot of fun, somehow it never quite gets it together to become as great as it rightfully should be. It still features a few outstanding moments of full-on Norifumi craziness that I won’t spoil for you here, and rips along at the director’s usual breakneck pace, but at the same time, the standard of his filmmaking seems to have slipped a lot in comparison to the masterpieces of just a couple of years earlier, and audience interest and suspense frequently evaporates into a mass of “y’know, this shit just makes no sense whatsoever”-style sloppiness. A B+ movie where it should have been an A+, if you get my drift, which is unfortunate for Shihomi, because she is AWESOME in this, and really deserved to be a bigger  international star, if only she’d got the breaks.

In the second half of the decade, Suzuki’s energies were largely ploughed into another of his creations, the Torakku Yarō (rough translation: ‘Truck Rascals’) series of comedies, which proved one of Toei’s most lucrative hits during this difficult period. More mainstream that anything else the director had done up to this point, these movies star yakuza film icon Bunta Sugawara and comedian Shinichiro Sawai as a pair of roughneck dudes travelling around Japan in garishly decorated articulated trucks. I’m not really sure what else happens, but one suspects that ‘hilarity’ probably ensues, with the kind of puerile antics seen in the first halves of the Sukeban movies perhaps taking precedence. Norifumi directed ten of ‘em between 1975 and 1979, anyhow.

If 1979 however, perhaps tiring of light-weight comedy, he flew way back in the opposite direction with the notorious ‘Star of David: Beautiful Girl Hunting’, a serial killer / rape n’ torture themed movie that holds legendary status amongst fans of that sort of extreme fare, although again, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to back away from it mumbling my usual “um.. sorry, I just don’t really like that kind of thing..” excuses.

Suzuki continued to write and direct intermittently through the ‘80s, with late career highlights including another Chiba / Shihomi actioner ‘Roaring Fire’ (1982), and ‘Shogun’s Ninja’ (1980), also with Chiba & Shihomi, his contribution to the brief vogue for all-star wuxia-style historical fantasy movies kicked off by Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘The Shogun’s Samurai’ in 1978. (I have this one on a bootleg DVD multi-pack, in a cropped, dubbed form so horrible I can scarcely bear to watch it.)

Norifumi-san’s last film as director was the little-known ‘Bimbari High School’, which appeared in 1990, and which, in a nice bit of circle-closing synchronicity, was produced by his fellow bad boy of Japanese cinema, Koji Wakamatsu – a heart-warming example perhaps of the commercial meeting the avant garde, united by a joint love of sex, violence and radical fervour.

By this point, I hope I’ve gone some way toward demonstrating what an absolute legend of crazed cinema Norifumi Suzuki was, and how widely the influence of his legacy can be felt (for better or for worse), both in Japan and elsewhere. For reasons outlined above, I think we can probably assume he wasn’t a man who held much of a belief in the afterlife, nor placed a great deal of value on peace and tranquillity, so let’s instead perhaps hope he’s now enjoying an explosive, kick-ass, kinky sex-filled eternity somewhere out there in the cosmic firmament. R.I.P.V., perhaps?


“As far as movies go, I don't think they're built to last for posterity. And that's exactly what gives movies their value. Because they're in total sync with the era in which they were created. So... I think they're similar to fireworks. All they have to do is linger in the minds of those who saw them.

In my case, they're no masterpieces, so I never thought there'd be people still watching 10, 20 years later. Never crossed my mind! Still, I guess you could say... how should I put it? When you set out to create something, of course the process of making it is enjoyable in itself, but you have to ask yourself, Just what does it mean to be human? Or...what makes us go on living? And that's what I always tried to keep in mind whenever I made a film. And when you come right down to it, is life something that's worth living? That's what it all boils down to. Always. And the answer is yes, it is worth living. No matter how wretched that life may be.”

Monday, 12 May 2014

Nippon Horrors:
The Great Yokai War /
‘Spook Warfare’

(Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968)

It would be interesting, I think, to know precisely when Japan’s legion of Yokai Monsters ceased to be a genuinely frightening presence in the nation’s mythology – boogeyman-esque nasties conjured up by parents to keep their children in line, or to put the wind up them on cold nights sitting around the kotatsu heater – and began to take on the slightly more… whimsical aspect generally assigned to them in post-war popular culture.

A definite turning point in this regard would seem to be emergence of legendary manga artist Shigeru Mizuki in the early 1960s, and in particular, the phenomenal popularity of his character Kitaro. A shaggy-haired, one-eyed ‘monster boy’ whose independently mobile second eye is, rather bizarrely, inhabited by the spirit of his late father, Kitaro represents an ambivalent but generally benevolent supernatural presence – a friend of the Yokai who often acts as a kind of intermediary between humanity and the monsters, using his powers either to punish human greed and egotism, or, more frequently, to combat more malevolent ‘outsider’ monsters who are feeding off the defenceless humans on his patch.

Earlier in his career, Mizuki had been advised by his editors that his interest in folkloric monsters was too ‘dark’ to be incorporated into a mainstream comic strip, and perhaps this is the reason why, with Kitaro, the artist took a more light-hearted approach to the material, tempering the macabre weirdness of his often extraordinary imaginings with a tone of gentle black humour, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Addams Family’, presenting Kitaro’s Yokai pals as goofy, somewhat likeable creatures, and making sure that their adventures were always neatly wrapped up with minimal harm done to innocent human by-standers.

As such, there is always a certain conflict between humour and genuine nastiness running through Mizuki’s work, but regardless, he apparently worked this balance well enough to make ‘Kitaro’ a massive hit, pretty much single-handedly reigniting public interest in the culture surrounding the Yokai, and defining their subsequent presentation to such a degree that many Japanese still have trouble differentiating monsters with roots in folklore from those which Mizuki invented from scratch.

With the popularity of Mizuki’s Yokai tales increasing through the 1960s, happily coinciding with the post-Godzilla/Ultraman boom in Japanese monster action, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the spooks got their shot at live action, big screen glory, and thus we come to Daiei’s 1968 production ‘The Great Yokai War’ (released in the USA under the wonderful title ‘Spook Warfare’). Whilst the film is in no way a direct adaptation of Mizuki’s manga, the spirit of his work is very much in evidence in Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s extremely strange motion picture.

For foreign viewers coming to it cold, I can only imagine that ‘The Great Yokai War’ must seem like a colossal WTF from start to finish, and even to those familiar with the ways of the Yokai, it proves a pretty peculiar business. For one thing, you certainly know you’re in for something a bit different when a Japanese movie – a product of surely one of the most inward-looking and culturally specific film industries in the world - opens with a prologue set amid the ruins of ancient Babylon, where a pair of Islamic-looking treasure-hunters are busy defiling the sanctity of some sand-blasted tomb or other.

In doing so, a solemn voiceover informs us, they are about to unleash the spirit of the all-powerful demon who was single-handedly responsible for the downfall of Babylonian civilisation. And indeed, the voiceover doesn’t lie. Lightning blasts! Earthquake! Whirlwind! And as our unfortunate nomads are buried beneath falling debris, a singularly gnarly, winged reptilian man-in-suit monster takes flight! Good grief.

Next, we cut to a narratively pointless but absolutely delightful Ray Harryhausen-esque sequence in which the winged demon descends upon a sailing ship making its way across a storm-tossed sea – a mixture of nautical model shots, back-projected monster-suit action and screaming, piratical crew member close-ups that serves both to demonstrate the kind of ambition this film intends to throw into its special effects, and also to bring a tear of joy to the eye of anyone with even the slightest love of ‘60s monster movies.

We are never given any explanation as to why this being of pure evil should head straight for Japan after being awakened in the middle of the Mesopotamian desert, but nonetheless, that is what he does, hitting shore in a remote coastal district where a respected local magistrate and his daughter are enjoying a quiet fishing trip. (Oh, and this all takes place during the Edo period by the way, so it’s top-knots and kimonos all round - you’d have to wait for Takashi Miike’s 2005 remake of this film to see your favourite Yokai running amok in contemporary Tokyo.)

The demon’s primary MO is soon revealed to be a kind of vampiric body snatching / mind control type operation, as he corners the magistrate in a spooky, cobweb-enshrouded rural shack, disarming him using a mixture of smoke, lightning and magical laser blasts, and bloodily consumes his soul, taking on his likeness and setting out to further extend his hidden influence within the man’s household. Not that our Babylonian antagonist really does a great deal to hide his presence, as the previously mild-mannered patriarch returns home and immediately begins yelling unreasonable commands at his family and servants, slaying the pet dog and violently smashing and burning the assorted shrines and religious icons dotted around his homestead.

Watching the ensuing chaos from a pond in the house’s courtyard is a curious Kappa – one of Japan’s reptilian river monsters, here represented as a kind of lovable, proto-Howard the Duck sort of fellow. As a supernatural creature, the Kappa is able to see the demon in his ‘real’ form, and, suitably startled, bravely sets out to take this scary intruder down with some Kappa kung-fu, getting his ass kicked in short order.

Tail between his legs, the Kappa retreats to an eerie, abandoned cemetery - a wonderful set, looking like it could have been taken straight from one of Mizuki’s drawings, with cluttered, ruinous mise en scene, overgrown weeds and voluminous quantities of gel-lit, multi-coloured Yokai Smoke - and reports his experiences to the local assembly of Yokai.

Everybody’s favourites are represented here, from the stretchy-necked woman Rockuro-kubi to the weird, one-eyed bouncing umbrella creature Karakasa-kozō, and Futa-kuchi-onna, the self-explanatory ‘two-mouthed woman’. Their leader and spokesman is the big-headed, staff-wielding Abura-sumashi, his oversized cranium presumably acting as movie code for “big brains”.(1)

Whilst the Yokai are largely ambivalent about the fate of the local human populace, they are a pretty patriotic bunch it seems, and on hearing the Kappa’s tale, they express concern that the preeminent reputation of Japanese spooks will be tarnished if they let this foreign interloper rampage around unchecked, taking over people’s minds and tearing down the sacred symbols of national tradition. (Do you detect a metaphor in there somewhere, readers? If so, I’m just going to whistle and look the other way.)

So, reccy missions to the magistrate’s house are attempted and plans are hatched, whilst, inevitably, a parallel ‘human’ storyline also emerges, wherein the noble fiancée of the magistrate’s daughter figures out that there is some demonic business going on and sets out to consult his uncle, a venerable Buddhist monk of an evil-fighting persuasion, leading to a couple of rather intense sequences of Asian-style folk magic business that play out like a far less icky version of one of those ‘Black Magic’ type Shaw Bros horror movies.

As neither human nor supernatural counter-attacks appear to have much of an immediate impact on the growing power of the Babylonian interloper though, the Yokai start to put the word out to their brother and sister spooks around the country, gradually assembling a full scale spectral army, as preparations for the Great War of the title start to get underway, building up to one whopper of a mind-bending, monster-bashing climax.

Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda didn’t have a great deal of directorial experience when he went to work on this film, and prior to this assignment I think he was primarily known as an effects guy – a background which certainly makes sense when viewing ‘The Great Yokai War’, in which a rather uncertain tone and underdeveloped narrative is livened up through the application of great art direction and lashings and lashings of outlandish special effects.(2)

In writing about films like this one, I always feel the need to preemptively defend their visual effects against hordes of hypothetical naysayers, pointing out that, sure, ‘The Great Yokai War’s creature designs are neither high-tech nor very convincing… but if you’re watching a movie as crazy as this and expect it to be ‘convincing’, then god knows, I can’t help you. What the effects ARE here is simple, imaginative, a lot of fun to look at and basically just really weird-looking, which I think is basically all you can ask of a barmy ‘60s monster movie.

Although I casually mentioned Harryhausen earlier in this review, that comparison is of course highly misleading. In keeping with the majority of Japanese fantasy cinema from the ‘60s, stop-motion and other ‘in-camera’ means of realising monsters are almost entirely avoided here, with all of the creatures instead created ‘live-on-stage’ style, with full-head masks, life-size suits and the like predominating. As such, it’s clear that Yuroda’s budget and expertise in no way allowed him to replicate the kind of rubbery fantasias exploited by Toho and Tsuburaya in the same period, but watching this film’s crew strive to create extraordinary results from their obviously limited means certainly makes for an enjoyable and – there’s that word again - delightful experience.

Several of the most prominent characters for instance are lumbered with fixed-expression head masks that allow for little facial movement, which immediately gives a bit of a goofy, childish feel to proceedings, but if you honestly find yourself taking offence at the Kappa’s boggle-eyes or the Babylonian demon’s leery fixed-grin, you have a harder heart than I, especially given the kind of exuberant physical acting that both performers employ to make up for such shortcomings.

Beyond his high-school-art-class level mask, the Kappa is basically just a guy in green body-paint and what looks like a few bits of an old ‘jungle lad’/barbarian outfit, but it is the actor’s spirited and strangely elegant capering that really sells the character. A similar approach is taken with Abura-Sumashi, who is presumably just played by a child wearing a giant papier-mâché head, but again, the results are so pleasing that you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with such an arrangement.

Daimon – as the Babylonian demon is referred to in the subtitles and cast list – also has a *very* cool costume, immobile head aside, looking not dissimilar to the kind of creature that might have turned up in one of Daiei’s ‘Diamajin’ films (see footnote 2). Scaly and bony with a thick carapace, curly back-spikes, a belt of skulls and, strangely, feathered wings, he certainly makes for a formidable and scary bad guy.

The Karakasa-kozō meanwhile is represented by a life-size puppet bouncing around on strings – an utterly bizarre addition to any film – whilst Rockru-kubi’s stretchy necked attack is realised by means of a wild assemblage of flailing, flesh-coloured hosepipe, and the use of a lot of conveniently placed foreground objects for the actress to poke her head around. Nonetheless, she is a wonderfully sinister presence, and her one-on-one fight with Daimon is definitely one the film’s highlights, perhaps the overall peak of its “I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” awesomeness.

Well, prior to the conclusion, anyway. Here, as Daimon splits himself into a number of clones then grows to full scale kaiju proportions, the Yokai army close in to attack him, and the filmmakers decide to make best possible use of their twenty or so functional monster suits through extensive application of super-imposition, building up layer upon layer of shiny, transparent Yokai legions by the simple means of slapping loads of different shots on top of each other, to sublimely freakish, psychedelic effect. This ‘March of the Yokai’, shot in slow motion, with the spectral hordes traversing rivers, clouds and mountains, and their ensuing epic battle with Daimon, is one of the most extensive spectacles of mindbending fantastic cinema I’ve seen for many a month. (And as an aside, I like how many of the Yokai seem to tie handkerchiefs around their heads when they go to ‘war’, making them look a bit like desperate, battled-scarred fighters from a Kurosawa movie or something.)

As you may have gathered from some of the descriptions above, ‘The Great Yokai War’ features comical character designs and gentle slapstick humour that could have come straight from kid’s adventure movie, but frequently mixes them up with moments of unnervingly gruesome horror, leading to a tonal discrepancy that is never quite resolved. In addition to the demon’s gory neck-chomping antics and a few other bloody, gaping wounds, the atmosphere of the film is persistently ominous, and Shigeru Ikeno’s dissonant, Ifukube-esque music is often terrifying.

One sequence in particular, in which a pair of young children are forced to flee their home and take refuge in the ghost-infested cemetery as their parents are slaughtered by demon-possessed samurai, seems purpose-built to send unsuspecting little ones straight into a screaming vortex of no-sleep-for-a-month trauma, but apparently none of this stopped ‘The Great Yokai War’ from finding a home as a frequent holiday TV fixture in Japan, so who knows, maybe kids in the Far East are just made of sterner stuff?

With this mixture of kiddie-friendly creatures and genuine threat, ‘The Great Yokai War’ could perhaps be seen as a precursor to something like Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’. But whereas that film managed to merge the two impulses very smoothly, Kuroda is less successful, with the resulting stylistic confusion perhaps serving to make things a bit too weird and alienating for casual viewers. Whilst the appearance of the Yokai is clearly quite cutesy, with the exception of the Kappa they are never really anthromorphised very much, nor allowed to develop their own personalities. And whilst their refusal to really give much of a fuck about the fate of the humans in the film is pretty refreshing for those of us with an ingrained hatred of Disney/Hollywood schmaltz, the spooks’ failure to become “relatable” also leads to something of a character-vacuum at the centre of the movie, especially given the rather dry and unengaging nature of the accompanying human drama.

Really though, such confusion is probably to be expected when you realise that Kuroda and his collaborators were basically going way off the map here, with no established set of genre conventions to guide them: in addition to horror and kid’s fantasy, there’s a hefty dose of kaiju eiga DNA in the mix, to say nothing of some distant hints at kaidan ghost stories, and even a fair amount of chambara-style period drama. With all these generic tropes flying around but never quite coalescing into a coherent whole, it is probably best to view ‘The Great Yokai War’ as a complete one-off, and one whose drawbacks are very much the result of its untested and somewhat unique style.

And, more importantly of course, those drawbacks never even come close to outweighing the sheer pleasure that the film’s wildly ambitious visuals, macabre atmosphere and unhinged creature designs have to offer to anyone with a fondness for unusual international fantasy cinema. In fact, if your tastes veer more toward the exceptionally weird, lower budget and culturally specific end of the scale, you can peg this one up as a ‘must see’ for sure... but then if you've read this far, you probably don't need me to tell you that.

As with just about every character or concept that emerged from Japanese popular cinema during the ‘60s, it seems that one film just wasn’t enough for Daiei’s Yokai, and they soon returned for ‘One Hundred Yokai Stories’ (1968) and ‘Journey with Ghosts Along Tokaido Road’ (1969). I’d imagine my quest to find both of those in watchable, sub-titled form might be worthy of a series of films in its own right, but nonetheless, I hope I’ll be able to share my thoughts on them with you sooner or later.

For now though, let's all wave goodbye to these spectral defenders of Japan's supernatural sovereignty, as they dance eerily back across the misty mountains. They may be apt to scare the shit out of us in nocturnal graveyards from time to time, but they're a good bunch really... well, provided you've got your visa papers in order and aren't planning to eat anyone or make with the mind control, at least.


(1)Many thanks to the indispensable for helping me get all those names straight – a wonderful resource, and a great way to waste a few idle hours at work.

(2) Kuroda’s main claim to fame prior to this film was as effects supervisor on Daiei’s series of ‘Daimajin’ movies, of which three were made in 1966. A similarly off-beat kind of period kaiju / Shinto mythological(?) type creation that perhaps represents the nearest relative to what we see in ‘The Great Yokai War’ and its sequels, you can learn more about ‘Daimajin’ via this informative post at Cool Ass Cinema.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Bande Dessinée Adulte.

Not much  going on here beyond a glorified link post with some pilfered images I’m afraid, but, since I no longer ‘do’ tumblr, I thought this might be a good space in which to share a link to this wonderful collection of scanned French (or Italian-translated-into-French?) fumetti covers that I discovered earlier today. (Tip-off via Monster Brains.)

Though I’m often fairly ambivalent about their contents, I absolutely love the hyper-sleazoid, ultra-pulp painted covers on these ‘70s/’80s fumetti, and a few favourites I’ve discovered through the aforementioned site are displayed above. Well, a few of the more tasteful ones anyway, because I’m still at least trying to keep things family-friendly ‘round here, goddamnit. Or PG-13 rated, at least. So, ‘15’ in the UK I suppose, or… well NOTHING BELOW THE WAIST anyway, that’s all I’m sayin’. (Mops brow with handkerchief and looks pensive.)

(Also quite interesting is this link, from the same site, which rather exhaustively chronicles instances in which imagery on these covers was ripped off from movie posters, stills, magazine photos, porn and, well, yeah - mostly porn, to be honest…)

Sunday, 4 May 2014