Akira Kobayashi in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers (1966)
While I was trying to compile a post for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon currently happening at Wildgrounds I read the sad news that one of my favorite Japanese directors, Yasuharu Hasebe, has died after contracting pneumonia on June 14th. Hasebe was 77 years old, but he was still an active director and his last project was the police drama The Case Files of Mamoru Yonezawa (Kanshiki: Yonezawa Mamoru no Jikenbo; 2009).
After learning about Hasebe’s death I immediately decided to put aside my previous plans to write about one of my favorite Japanese actors (Akira Kobayashi) and focus on writing a bit about Hasebe’s work instead. In a sad coincidence, Akira Kobayashi also appeared in some of Hasebe’s best films.
Only a handful of the movies that Hasebe made are currently available on DVD in the US but they showcase the work of an incredibly talented director who injected his action-packed dramas and violent pink films with pertinent social messages and bucket loads of style. Although he’s not as revered as many of his contemporaries, Hasebe was able to masterfully navigate through the Japanese studio system while carving out his own distinct creative path. The director wrote or co-wrote many of his best films, which often touched on similar themes including female oppression and exploitation as well as race relations and the American occupation of Japan. Hasebe’s films are frequently sited for their orchestrated action and extreme violence but I think that many of them have maintained their power because of the director’s socially conscious scripts and keen sense of mise-en-scène.
Hasebe seemed to enjoy placing his camera in unexpected places and shooting his films in an intimate manner that is often surprisingly innovative. Although I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I firmly believe that the recurring visual motifs and framing techniques seen throughout many of his films mark his work with an individual flair that is undeniably his own. I wouldn’t hesitate to call Hasebe an “auteur” but I know that I’m in the minority. It’s important to point out (as I’ve often done before) that western film criticism of Japanese cinema is still in its infancy and I suspect that Hasebe’s work will receive much more critical attention and acclaim in the future as more critics and film scholars are exposed to his films.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of my favorite Yasuharu Hasebe films and television productions that are currently available on DVD in the US:
Black Tight Killers (aka Ore ni sawaru to abunaize; 1966)
Hasebe’s first film was this unforgettable pop art action extravaganza starring Akira Kobayashi as a Vietnam war photographer caught up in a strange circumstances involving a kidnapping, a fortune in hidden gold and a gang of go-go girl assassins who use ’45 records as weapons. It’s one of the directors most lighthearted and fun films even if does manage to inject a tiny bit of war related nuance and fringe ideas about female empowerment into the James Bond inspired proceedings. Popcorn entertainment doesn’t get much more satisfying than Black Tight Killers and if you haven’t had the pleasure to see this little gem yet do yourself a favor and watch it soon. It would make a terrific double feature with the Bond classic, Goldfinger (1964).
Bloody Territories (aka Kôiki bôryoku: ryuuketsu no shima; 1969)
This grim crime drama also stars Akira Kobayashi and features some nice location shots and well-executed action scenes. Bloody Territories is one of the last yakuza film’s made during the 1960s and unlike his longtime mentor Seijun Suzuki, Hasebe seems to be rejecting some of the stylish excesses of the past to focus on the social aspects of rival gangs as well as the impact of American capitalism on post-war Japan. These would become prominent concerns in future yakuza films but Hasebe is one of the first directors that was willing to strip away the imposed glamor of many popular crime films from the era and offer audiences a much more realistic and unromantic look at Japan’s criminal underworld.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Nora-neko rokku: Sekkusu hanta; 1970)
This is just one of the three Stray Cat Rock films that Hasabe directed but it’s the only one currently available on DVD in the US. The film features one of my favorote actresses, the charismatic action heroine Meiko Kaji as leader of a tough girl gang who is trying to help a troubled young “half-breed” (a derogatory term used in Japan for mixed-race individuals who were often the children of American soldiers and Japanese women) find his lost sister. Things get ugly when the local yakuza gang starts beating-up “half-breeds” and attempts to trick Meiko’s gang into sexual servitude.
Hasebe’s creative directing choices raise Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter above a lot of typical pinky violence films. Although his film is laced with many stylistic choices that would make his mentor Seijun Suzuki proud, Hasebe isn’t afraid to boldly focus on his film’s underlying political concerns. His camera casually glides past a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and lingers on the fencing surrounding an American military base to suggest the segregation and racism taking place in Japan and the US. He also shows his criminals riding around in American military jeeps and sharing American cigarettes. While Hasabe’s casual condemnation of the American occupation and its social influence on his country is palpable, his film also takes swipes at the macho posturing of Japanese men and their callous treatment of women. Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is a take no prisoners affair, a message movie with a punch, and one of the best films to make full use of Meiko Kaji’s powerful female presence. Hasebe’s clearly admires his film’s star and he never lets the audience forget it.
Spectreman (aka Supekutoruman; 1971)
Yasuharu Hasebe only directed a few later episodes of this entertaining tokusatsu show, but I think it’s worth mentioning because Spectreman is one of my favorite Japanese super heroes. It also highlights the director’s diversity and ability to create fun and entertaining work that can be enjoyed by children as well as adults.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (aka Joshuu sasori: 701-gô urami-bushi; 1973)
This was the fourth and final film in this popular series that also starred Meiko Kaji. It’s often considered to be the least interesting of all the Female Prisoner Scorpion films and my initial reaction to it was lukewarm but after multiple viewings I was completely won over by it. Hasebe is clearly not all that interested in the mythos surrounding the previous Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and instead the director uses the film’s basic ongoing theme of revenge to explore the political and social landscape of Japan in the early ‘1970s.
In the film Meiko Kaji’s character Nami (aka Sasori) becomes involved with a student protester (Masakazu Tamura) suffering physical and mental anguish after being tortured by the police. Nami has never been emotionally invested in a male character before, but things change dramatically in Grudge Song. Our lone female antiheroine not only falls for the student protester but she also agrees to help him with a robbery in order to help fund an all out war on the corrupt police. Things don’t go as planned but timely plot twists keep the film interesting and lend it an unexpected poignancy.
A year before Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song was made the infamous Asama-Sansō Incident involving the United Red Army had occurred in Japan following the heavy-handed crack down by the police on student-led protest groups. Hasebe was obviously aware of the seething anger and resentment felt among many Japanese youth at the time and was able to use the last Female Prisoner Scorpion film as a vessel to address these concerns. The director disregards many of the stylish flourishes that are prevalent in previous Female Prisoner Scorpion films and instead offers audiences a more straightforward movie. Surrealism is pushed aside for gritty realism as Hasebe ushers in a new decade of Japanese cinema.
Images from Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976)
Assault! Jack the Ripper (aka Bôkô Kirisaki Jakku; 1976)
In the mid 1970s Hasebe become one of the forerunners of “violent pink” cinema in Japan. The director was given a lot of creative freedom by Nikkatsu studios and his films took on a new kind of urgency that was drenched in graphic violence, extreme sexual situations and human brutality. These films are often reflective of their times and although many critics have had a hard time seeing Japanese pink films as anything but exploitative entertainment, recently it’s become clear that many of the more complex pink films offered up by directors like Hasebe are concerned with bigger ideas besides mere audience titillation. Like Hasebe’s previous directing efforts, his pink films are a continuation of his obvious interest in addressing social concerns and political unrest within Japan. For more on Assault! Jack the Ripper please see my previous capsule review of the film that I compiled for my list of Favorite DVDs of 2008.
I hope this brief look at some of my favorite Hasebe productions will encourage a few people to seek out his work. He’s a fascinating filmmaker who is worthy of a lot more critical attention and respect than he’s received. Most of these films are available for rent at Netflix or Greencine and you can find new and used copies of Hasebe’s films selling at Amazon.com