Satsuo Yamamoto's entertaining tale of pastoral burglars is filled with humor, agaisnt the backdrop of the Cold War.

Gisuke Hayashida (Rentaro Mikuni) is a professional burglar. His specialty is storehouse cracking. He and his buddies sneak into a rich family’s large estate in the middle of the night, go straight to its storehouse where all the expensive stuff, mostly expensive kimono and textiles, are stored, and work on its wall silently. His method is simple and efficient. His getaway plan is clever and cunning. He and his gang drive a track full of their game, but masquerading as a family sending off a newlyweds to fool policemen at the checkpoint.

Gisuke also has another profession. He is an unlicensed dentist. He visits a remote village during daytime as an able dentist, and fishes around for next target. His patients talk a lot. A lot about his next target.

Of course, he makes mistakes sometimes. Like marrying a not-so-bright geisha, who impulsively sells off his friend’s loot and gets caught. Sergent Miyake interrogates Gisuke ruthlessly, but Gisuke does not give his friend’s name. He takes the rap for the robbery he did not commit and is sent to a prison.

“A Tale of Japanese Burglar (にっぽん泥棒物語, 1965)” starts off as an intriguing anecdotal story of professional burglars in the sleepy villages in the postwar Fukushima, then transforms itself into an observation on the judicial system, the social conditions of the underclass and underprivileged, the labor issues and the Cold War. Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto, the film is loosely based on a true story of a burglar, who became a witness to exonerate the defendants in the Matsukawa Incident Trial.

The Matsukawa Incident is one of the most puzzling and fascinating cold cases in the postwar Japan. Along with the Shimoyama Incident and the Mitaka Incident, these terrorist attacks on the Japanese railway system may signify the socio-political conditions in Japan during the early stage of the Cold War. On August 17, 1949, the passenger train bound to Ueno was derailed near Kaneyagawa Village in the Fukushima Prefecture. It was an act of sabotage. Bolts and nuts on the track joints had been tampered with, and many railroad spikes had been removed by someone. The 25-meter section of the rail had shifted away, causing the locomotive to derail. Three locomotive crew were killed. The police suspected that some of the union members in the Japanese Railway Labor Union and in the Toshiba factory nearby conspired to carry out the attack. A total of 20 suspects were arrested. The investigators concluded three members of the Union carried out the actual sabotage, while the rest participated in the planning and preparation. Many of the evidences were fabricated or sabotaged by the investigators, and the forced confessions made by the supposed leader of the group were used as the admission of the crime. The Labor Unions, the Socialists and the Communists formed an alliance to contest the validity of the investigation while the lawyers gathered every tiny evidence to overturn the court decisions. It took more than a decade to exonerate all the defendants. During the course of the appeal to the higher court, the lawyers discovered the key witnesses against the prosecutor. A pair of storehouse crackers had witnessed the true saboteurs that night. They saw a group of nine men, not three, much taller than the defendants, walking along the train track just before the incident. These suspicious men spoke without the local accent. And also, they revealed that the chief police investigator of the case tried to coerce them to retract their testimony: the investigator tried to convince the witnesses that they saw three not nine men. This act of dishonest interrogation destroyed the credibility of the whole investigation. To this day, the true culprits of the crime remain unknown.

The film follows this incredible story closely, but still maintains its fictional status. Gisuke, who witnessed the nine men that night, goes straight after spending years in prison (but still practices dentistry without license). He finds happiness in his new family, and tries to avoid any contact with his past. One day, however, he drinks one too many cups of sake and he unwittingly confides his secret to his old friend. “I saw nine tall men that night with my own eyes.” He soon regrets ever saying that, because lawyers and newspaper reporters start chasing him around to get this testimony while his old archenemy, Sergent Ando (Yuunosuke Ito), hearing this rumor, keeps harassing him. All Gisuke wanted is to keep his life peaceful and quiet. His wife doesn’t know his past. He doesn’t want his family to be branded as a clan of criminals.

This little cinematic gem is packed with fantastic acting by a group of finest actors and actresses of the postwar Japan. Rentaro Mikuni and Yuunosuke Ito are brilliant as ever. Especially, Mikuni speaks in such a strong Fukushima accent that he blends into the landscape of small villages so removed from the modernization. Ito’s detective is so fishy, underhanded, sly, and stubborn that you actually can smell his bad breath. Other players are even more fantastic. Tanie Kitabayashi, who played Gisuke’s aging mother, speaks in a tongue you don’t understand but you would never see the stronger bond between the mother and the son. Yoshiko Sakuma, probably best known for the role of Yukiko in “The Makioka Sisters (細雪, 1983)”, is cast as Hana, Gisuke’s second wife. Her acting as a vulnerable but caring wife amplifies the Gisuke’s anxiety effectively. Momoko, Gisuke’s first wife, is played with such a vibrant energy by Etsuko Ichihara, the veteran of TV dramas. Mizuho Suzuki, who plays Kimura, one of the accused saboteurs and defendants of the case, delivers the fine performance with nuanced delicacy and honesty.

Satsuo Yamamoto … he was like always … walking on a straight road in the middle of rice field. He just looks straight ahead.

Rentaro Mikuni

Satsuo Yamamoto had ups and downs, mostly downs, during his life-long carrier. Though remembered for politically-conscious films with socialist/communist leanings, he was nonetheless good at making entertaining films. His ambitious independent productions include “Street of Violence (暴力の街, 1950)”, an honest depiction of postwar confusion, and “Vacuum Zone (真空地帯, 1952)”, a ruthless portrait of Japanese military, while he could make “The Ninja / Shinobi no mono (忍びの者, 1962)” or “Freezing Point (氷点, 1966)”. Even with his social-conscious films, his direction always searches for an entertaining narrative arc. In “A Tale of Japaneses Burglars”, the fascinating character study is placed in the foreground, while social commentary may be retracted into the background. However, because Yamamoto sketches the atmosphere of remote villages of Fukushima with such an affinity, the film successfully provides us with a socio-historical perspective on how Japan becomes what it is now. In the age of rapid modernization, the peripheral areas such as Fukushima were left behind. People like Gisuke and his mother had no idea where the nation is heading. But the anti-communist sentiment and pressure on labor movement were prevalent even in such a pastoral country. The Cold War was definitely lurking in the air, and fear of “Reds coming to the town” was real and genuine. Gisuke, learning that someone had overturned the train, quickly murmured “Reds really did it”.

This film may be a good companion to “Policeman’s Diary (警察日記, 1955)”, which is also an anecdotal story set in rural Fukushima in 1950’s.

The last 10 minutes of the film is one of the funniest courtroom dramas you ever see. Gisuke gives his testimony with brutal honesty. His polite but nonchalant demeanor cuts through the stuffy air of the courtroom and bursts through the dishonest investigation in the end. Mikuni and Ito give impressive performance in any situation, but this one is exceptional.

Though the political background it deals with is fairly gruesome and repulsive, Satsuo Yamamoto and a troupe of the incredible actors and actresses made this story entertaining and believable at the same time.

 

A Tale of Japanese Burglars
(にっぽん泥棒物語, 1965)

Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto
Written by Hajime Takaiwa and Atsushi Takeda
Cinematography by Hanjiro Nakazawa
Music by Sei Ikeno
Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Yuunosuke Ito, Tanie Kobayashi, Yoshiko Sakuma
Dai-Ei

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