Nippon no Akuryo, 1970
With a financially burdened Kazuo Kuroki, having finally found a home of sorts with the Art Theatre Guild, Evil Spirits of Japan [Nippon no Akuryo, lit. ‘Demon Spirits of Japan’] marked his directorial debut with the company – a production, which common enough for the studio, saw them front half of the film’s reported 10 million yen budget, leaving the director himself to hustle for the rest.
Filmed as a period piece, Evil Spirits of Japan is very much entrenched in a modern sensibility. Released barely ten years after the real life movement which inspired it, it’s a film whose origins lay with a novel written by Kazumi Takahashi (the Dostoyevsky-inspired title adapted here by Yoshikazu Fukuda), himself a vocal supporter of the student movement of the sixties, in which the ‘Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan’ sparked violent protests across the nation. Shot under harsh conditions, in which the director and his crew even struggled to see a good meal, the result is a raw but tight Gendai-geki, which traverses contemporary sociopolitical themes to present a largely unsung Yakuza tale of much prominence.
The fairly straightforward plot sees a yakuza bodyguard by the name of Murase (Kei Sato – The Human Condition, Onibaba) stroll into a town situated within the Gunma prefecture, which is currently serving as the battleground for a violent conflict between two yakuza families – the Kito and Tenchi. When Murase arrives at his digs, expecting to be greeted by a female bar hostess (Eiko Horii) who has been assigned to him by the Kito group, he discovers that she’s already in bed with another man. That man is Ochiai (Kei Sato) – a police detective with eighteen years on the force and a former student activist, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the yakuza member. Seizing an opportunity for his own gain, Murase forces Ochiai to swap identities, which eventually leads Murase to investigate a murder case dating back to a time in which Ochiai belonged to a militant group. As Murase effortlessly infiltrates the police force and finds himself settling in nicely, so too does Ochiai find some sort of comfort in the dubious acts he partakes in. Confronted by ethic and moral questions, both men will inevitably find themselves spiraling toward a path of self-destruction.
With Kazuo Kuroki’s previous feature, Cuban Lover, failing to leave a lasting impression at the box office and plunging production into debt – later seeing Kuroki hounded by loan sharks and yakuza – Evil Spirits of Japan is a heartier attempt at bringing both the director’s artistic sensibilities and personal struggles to the forefront of a modern thriller. On the face of it, his picture might not seem revelatory in a sense that part of its fundamental goal is to highlight government corruption, yet any predictability in its message is far outmatched by its aesthetic trickery and surprising humour.
The documentarian, freestyle approach of which Kuroki had honed during his early filmmaking years throughout the late fifties to early sixties, assists well as a means to explore a chaotic narrative coloured by shades of grey; its political bent, which echoes parts of the director’s late youth, is presented in stark monochrome, with Murase and Ochiai’s contrasting black and white attire illustrating a simple dichotomy of the feature’s themes as it tackles a nation’s crisis of identity, along with showcasing the dubious hierarchical system which makes up the fabric of its being. Kuroki’s camera is often found lingering on scenes, soaking up the general malaise of the time, while occasionally focusing on a hopeful society which looks upon the lens to remind us of an often organic process at play. Moments such as this are bolstered by some fitting figures from other parts of the Angura [underground] scene, perhaps one of the more unlikely notables being the “God of Folk” himself, Nobuyashi Okabayashi, who undercuts the tale with several songs, which just about border on the unsubtle. In its context, however, the singer-songwriter, whose protest writings provided the voice of a disillusioned generation whilst leaving broadcasters on tenterhooks, works in highlighting much of the absurdity on display, with his wall-breaking turns aiming to subvert expectations in what becomes a picture that relishes the opportunity to lampoon some of Toei’s already successful Ninkyo eiga [chivalry films] productions.
Kazuo Kuroki’s tale is ultimately a confident debut with the ATG; a film with some startling motifs, which symbolise concepts of good and evil, crime and punishment and sexual desire via more unconventional patterns, while serving as a precursor for many of the great Doppelganger movies to come.