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Eclipse's Nikkatsu Noir boxset showcases Nikkatsu Studio's crime capers from the 1950s-60s, which borrow heavily from American noir films but -- with the help of charismatic stars and innovative filmmakers -- become exemplars of Japanese style and creativity. It's enough to get any film geek off.
The latest Criterion Forgotten Japanese Studio Films Boxset -- er, Eclipse release, has been a long time coming. Well, perhaps it's only been a relatively short and loud time, if one recalls that most casual mouth-breathing film snobs just recently started clamoring for the Japanese-noir and potboiler hybrids pumped out of Nikkatsu studios during the late 1950s-60s after Japan Times critic Mark Schilling's tribute, "No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema," debuted at the Udine Film Fest in 2005. The Eclipse release should satisfy many a nerd, though the selection of films is curious. None of the films in the boxset -- save for A Colt is My Passport -- were screened as part of Schilling's 16-film retrospective, and all of the films are previously unreleased, standalone efforts, with no reference to Nikkatsu's strings of films like the Wataridori or Burai series. Not one of the films is in color, a detail that would've tripped up the "noir" aspect of the set, though many of the Nikkatsu Action films -- such as Black Tight Killers or The Velvet Hustler, currently available on DVD/VHS -- actually used color to pretty imaginative degrees.
This is also the first boxset Eclipse has released not centered on a particular director or other such auteur, and it's the first Criterion collection to be centered on a specific era of a studio's house style. As such, the boxset is less a "single vision" than a single attitude, a confluence of filmmaking methods and, like any good studio marketing campaign, star branding. Whether it's muudo or mukokuseki action, each film differs stylistically and thematically depending not only upon the director's slant, but also the type of star involved. Unfortunately, Tetsuya Watari and Akira Kobayashi, my favorites of the "Diamond Line" -- Nikkatsu's A-list acting class consisting of, among other notables, Ishihara, Kobayashi, Watari, and Joe Shishido -- are barely represented here. This might be understandable -- Watari is a fixture of widely-available Kinji Fukasaku films, while Kobayashi's wild escapades like Three Seconds Before Explosion have also been watched by many a geek on DVD. On the other hand, if American fans can finally get a glimpse of Yujiro Ishihara as the lonely and expressive male hero opposite Mie Kitahara's pining hanger-on, that's a pretty decent consolation.
The two Yujiro Ishihara vehicles included in this set are the monumental I Am Waiting (1957) and Rusty Knife (1958), both the respective debuts of Koreyoshi Kurahara and Toshio Masuda, a solid storyteller who provides more stylistic experimentation in Rusty Knife than just about any other of his films. The former is helmed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, best known in Japan for directing family-friendly dog films, but who earlier in his career directed such insanities as The Warped Ones. I am Waiting doesn't nearly have the same degree of lust and anarchy as that 1960 classic, but there is some of the director's moxie (bizarre camera angles and lighting schemes) and penchant for male heroes barely eking out livings on the fringes of society. A story about a former boxer fighting heavies on the Yokohama docks, the film gives a slight nod to On the Waterfront, though the protagonists of the two films don't seem, for all their similarities, remotely similar. If Crazed Fruit introduced Ishihara to the Japanese public as an insouciant taiyozoku thug, I Am Waiting cemented his popularity as the leading young male star of the post-war generation. For a number of reasons, Japanese audiences -- brimming with women -- found Ishihara's mix of aggressive unpredictability, lonely defiance, schoolboy bully looks, and oddly civilized countenance (unlike Brando) more appealing than any of the other Diamond Liners.
But opposite him in both films is Mie Kitahara, one of Nikkatsu's most popular actresses at the time alongside Ruriko Asaoka and Izumi Ashikawa. Of the ten films Kitahara did after Crazed Fruit, every single one was with Ishihara, and nearly every one in an opposite lead role. But in 1960, the two eloped after a tabloid-saturated affair, and Kitahara never appeared in another film again, staying by Ishihara's side until his death of cancer in 1987. It's quite possibly the most famous off-screen star romance in Japanese movie history, and makes for incredibly entertaining interpretations of their on-screen interactions (such as Chuck Stevens' reading of the last scene of Rusty Knife). If the two films in the set don't pack as much heat as Crazed Fruit -- or, for that matter, the criminally unreleased Season of the Sun -- it's not because of Yujiro and Mie's chemistry, but rather the new dictates of the set: the docks of Yokohama are a lot grimier and gang-ridden than the Shonan coast.
Yet, the romance of Ishihara and Kitahara firmly complements the hard-boiled antics of corrupt politicians and gangster kidnappers. Ishihara might not be willing to give up everything for the girl but, unlike his contemporaries, he had a soft spot for them that wouldn't deny their unyielding affection. And in his most memorable leading roles, it was always Kitahara's affection. His boxer might get beat up, or his reformed gangster of a bartender might get beat down, but she traces his gait in both films, attempting to provide guidance to his aimless steps, or perhaps just willing to go wherever he'll take her. And unlike previous times, in the ambivalent postwar climate of reconstruction and extended American occupation, the destination is no longer a definitely positive one. Still, it helps that Yujiro, like the pop crooning Kobayashi, sings his own theme songs in the films along the way.
Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) is not your typical Seijun Suzuki gangster film. It doesn't star any young stars. The film is about a middle-aged prison guard who is suspended from his job for letting two prisoners in his bus get shot and killed. He decides to take matters into his own hands and goes on a Stray Dog, Mifune-like search for the culprits. There's a poignancy to Michitaro Mizushima's guard trying to find the killers who took his livelihood from him. He has a little more to lose than a Jo or Hideki, and the kids are all running circles around him trying not to get caught. It's not the first time Suzuki and Mizushima collaborated (Underworld Beauty being the first), but there's something exciting about watching someone a little past his prime like Mizushima -- who had worked with Tomu Uchida and Masahiro Makino years before -- trying to stick a star lead landing with the fresh-faced Suzuki as his judge. Mizushima plays the part with a stoic seriousness unlike any other Suzuki hero, and the pairing isn't always seamless. His earnest cop and Suzuki's crazy mise-en-scene and scenarios become amusing in the sheer contrasts, such as when Mizushima witnesses a prostitute get an arrow shot in her tit. He's all straight-faced about it, and we feel a little guilty for laughing.
The film is Suzuki's starting point for the wild experimentation he would undertake at Nikkatsu, using younger heroes and heroines to do everything from lampooning the codes of the underworld to satirizing the attitudes of the military elite, but also speaking for the steadfast resilience of the marginalized. Suzuki often does it with a tongue planted so firmly in cheek that something seems always off-kilter, absurd, hilarious. The film has a subtle fascination with the most vulgar and disappointing actions of humans -- we witness one good-hearted ex-con slowly devolve into a pimp and hustler with barely an emotional register; anyone wearing glasses seems intelligent, but then becomes lascivious and weird. Take Aim at the Police Van is just as nihilistic as Suzuki's other films, and it's no less unconcerned about plot particulars. One is reminded of The Big Sleep while watching, trying to piece together who killed whom and deciding if the ultimate villain's identity actually makes sense.
Cruel Gun Story (1963) and A Colt is My Passport (1967) feature Joe Shishido, whose surgically-altered mug strangely is the most hardened, bullish male hero of any Nikkatsu star. The Diamond Line at Nikkatsu was comprised of men different from the Japanese heroes that came before. Possibly as a response to postwar trauma and creeping American and French cultural influence, this was a masculinity that was cosmopolitan, sexed-up, and tough. But Joe's masculinity seems ridiculously rough-edged, hyper-exaggerated to the point of near psychopathology. It helps that he's always carrying around a big gun, whether it's a berretta or a western-like shotgun. Joe is also always paired not with a sexy femme like Yujiro or Akira, but with a partner-in-crime that doesn't cut the man mustard. Half-breed metrosexuals, like Jerry Fujio in A Colt is My Passport, and skinny pipsqueaks, like Tamio Kawachi in Cruel Gun Story, hang onto Joe for dear life. Joe has to protect himself, the kids, and the occasional moll, and he does it while blasting and bleeding away.
The last two Nikkatsu films of the set take place in the city, but the city is changing. If the noir-infused Tokyo of Kurosawa's Drunken Angel is full of grime and depravation, the cosmopolitan areas of the new Yokohama are a little more chic, attractive, and full of foreigners, and a little less trustworthy. Even before the war, the docks were places criminal, but also conjured up nostalgia -- in films by Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu or Gosho Heinosuke -- through their representations of travel, both abroad and to the homeland. After the war, the ports of Yokohama became symbolic in Japanese films not just of the seedy underbelly of the yakuza underworld, but also of a place emanating an even stronger foreign influence to the point of corruption. Both films here are set in and around Yokohama, but it's rendered by Takumi Furukawa and Takashi Nomura as either a claustrophobic maze of American bars and brands, or a western-infused no-man's land complete with a saloon-like inn where the maid washes her clothes next to chickens and a Morricone-like soundtrack of twanging guitars and whistles composed by Harumi Ibe.
Cruel Gun Story and A Colt is My Passport are as innovative as any dreamscape by Sam Fuller, and as vicious as any violence by Robert Aldrich. The former -- about a group of guys assembled to stick up a horse track -- is an homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, complete with the loopy flashbacks and the inevitably doomed stickup. It's great entertainment, but A Colt is My Passport will probably be the favorite of everyone who watches this collection, and with good reason. It's as fluid and dynamic a fusion as anything Japan has ever produced -- from Blind Woman's Curse to Sukiyaki Western Django. The barely-there plot functions merely to service the wild experimentation that fits the filmmakers' whimsy. This was "mood action" -- the film and filmmakers now more responsible for conjuring up an atmosphere and world beyond the mere elements of the "borderless" stories. What begins as a deliberate and methodical assassination staged in a blank apartment ends in a barren dirt landscape, with Joe facing off against a gang of toughs armed only with a handgun, shotgun, and the wind whirling past him like a sandstorm. The camera isn't restless, it's clever. In many instances, the camera itself becomes a gun showing us long periods of voyeurism through crosshairs, zooming quickly on charging enemies, and focusing on short rat-a-tat bursts from a speeding car. All that style invigorates the stale plot -- we're right there with Joe at the end, compelled by his character and intrigued as to how the whole finale will play out on the elaborate stage.
Joe could've been a great spaghetti western anti-hero, even with his cherub cheeks. He always looked more comfortable with a gun than a girl, and, while he never appeared to get off on killing, he didn't seem to have much doubt about it, either. There's nothing exactly like A Colt is My Passport in Nikkatsu's 60s output, although Suzuki's bizarre, colorful masterpieces come close in their audacity. And yet that's what makes it so typical of Nikkatsu's product of the time: a fun, unabashed willingness to try something a little derivative, but while creating a Japanese Frankenstein not of any one world.
Date Posted: 9/4/2009