The Scene of the Crime: Nikkatsu Noir on DVD (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Adam Bingham
Eclipse Series No. 17, a five-disc DVD box set, B&W, 442 min. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
In the tortuous postwar history of Japanese cinema, extreme and idiosyncratic genre material occupies a particularly fascinating, curiously mainstream position in the country’s film industry. Today, figures such as Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Rokuro Mochizuki are internationally renowned for their audacious and subversive reworkings of the circumscribed narratives and stereotypical stock characters associated particularly with the yakuza film; and their careers are far from atypical. Working with major studios, often on assigned projects, these directors have tended to conceive of genre almost as a jazz musician conceives of melody: as an organizing principle that shapes a series of departures and contrapuntal ruptures; a formulaic framework within which stylistic and narrative transgression (e.g., figurative textual violence) becomes an objective correlative of stories built around crime and criminality.
Miike and Mochizuki, however, are but the latest in a long line of singular genre directors who have peppered Japanese studio filmmaking, and who at their best offer pleasurably predictable stories that frequently function as commentaries on the same. Indeed, a number of the most renowned directors to emerge in the postwar decades have at least sporadically exemplified this paradigm. Most obviously, the major figures of the Japanese New Wave began their careers in studio and genre filmmaking, and many with Godardian examinations of a genre’s own inherent laws and reality. Conversely, the array of independents that came to prominence in the 1980s (Sogo Ishii, Yoshimitsu Morita, Shinya Tsukamoto, Shinji Somai) fought their pitched battles with convention by taking apart, and ultimately implicitly reifying, some of the preeminent generic categories to have comprised the contemporary Japanese canon, such as the Gendai-geki, home drama and Seishun eiga youth film.
It is thus the case that both genre and generic experimentation have remained central to the art of Japanese filmmaking. Even such titanic figures as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu spent their careers working variations on generally well-established genres—in the case of the latter in one of the most coherent and refined oeuvres in the history of world cinema—and a great deal of both their popularity and ongoing interest resides in this dichotomy, in the tension between, as it were, industrial and personal expression. As such, hot on the heels of their DVD releases of both Mizoguchi (series thirteen) and Ozu (series three and ten), it is particularly fitting that Criterion’s Eclipse label should turn their attention now to what is in many ways the obverse, mirror image of these grand auteurs: cheap, quickly shot program pictures designed for new directors at a ruthlessly commercial studio.
Nikkatsu Noir is a five-DVD box set featuring a selection of the crime thrillers, or mukokuseki akushun (‘borderless action films’), that represented the mainstay of Japan’s oldest film studio in the late 1950s and early 1960s—I Am Waiting (1957), Rusty Knife (1958), Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Cruel Gun Story (1964), and A Colt is My Passport (1967). These works do not all fit the pattern of experimentalism that defines the most famous filmmakers associated with the crime and yakuza genres in Japan at the time (Seijun Suzuki, in particular, and Teruo Ishii). But they afford a valuable opportunity to assess a genuinely Japanese response to international trends in genre cinema, not simply from the U.S. as the title suggests, but also from France and Italy, with their respective traditions of poetic realism and the Spaghetti Western.
Nikkatsu, which had only resumed production in 1954 following a major expansion, had been keen to renege on its old conservative policies, and had already facilitated a revolutionary epoch when they produced the film Season in the Sun (1956). This seminal adaptation of a novella by a future mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara took the pulse of a new youth demographic as distinctly as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in America or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1959) in the U.K. And in so doing it heralded the so-called Taiyozoku, or “sun-tribe,” genre that focused on wealthy, bored, hedonistic teenagers and their crime- and sex-filled leisure-time exploits. The noirfilms made at Nikkatsu and represented in this release were fed directly by the Taiyozoku boom, something exemplified by the first two in the collection, I Am Waiting andRusty Knife. Both films were written by Shintaro, and both star Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara, who had appeared together in arguably the greatest sun-tribe film, Crazed Fruit, in 1956 (also written by Shintaro).
Beyond this overt continuation, however, there are few similarities between the two genres. Yujiro’s protagonist in I Am Waiting—an ex-boxer-cum-bar owner waiting for word from his brother to escape Japan and join him in Brazil—evinces little of the selfish sexual voraciousness of his character in Crazed Fruit, who steals his brother’s girlfriend to satiate his own lusts. Throughout, he seems to care more for his lost sibling than the similarly troubled female nightclub singer (Kitahara) with whom he becomes involved, and this point crystallizes not only the shift away from the sun-tribe paradigm, but also from true noir to something like French poetic realism. The fact that both protagonists are running from troubled pasts and awaiting uncertain futures recalls the glory days of Marcel Carné. Indeed, the very title echoes the set-up ofDaybreak, with Jean Gabin holed up in an apartment waiting for the dawn and an irreversible appointment with fate, whilst the moody, run-down port setting where the action transpires strongly resembles that of Port of Shadows.
I Am Waiting marked the debut of its director, Koreyoshi (Ko) Kurahara, and is a far more restrained effort than much of his subsequent work, such as the 1963 free-form portrait of youthful rebellion and delinquency, The Weird Love-Makers. Unlike that film, and the earlier Taiyozoku youth narratives, the world of I Am Waiting is a rarefied male milieu to which women remain at best peripheral, even though in Ko and Shintaro’s hands it is the characterization of Kitahara’s bruised nightclub singer (“a canary who has forgotten how to sing”) that lifts the film a notch. Her status as a correlative to the protagonist is all the more moving for remaining unstressed, and her tentative, largely unreciprocated feelings toward him make her a potentially more tragic figure. Certainly her role is beautifully conceived in the way it throws light on and subtly modulates our response to the central concern with masculinity in crisis, at the heart of this film as it is in many an American noir, even though few from the U.S. offer as rounded a female characterization (perhaps only Gloria Grahame in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place and Lang’s The Big Heat).
The second film in this collection sees Yujiro once again playing a tortured character with a past that haunts him throughout the film; as in I Am Waiting this takes the form of a killing for which he feels remorse and anger, and which drives much of his emotion and action throughout the narrative. Rusty Knife was director Toshio Masuda’s third film, and first (of twenty-five) with Yujiro Ishihara. Like Seijun Suzuki, he went on throughout the 1960s to deliver a series of delirious, gaudy twists on pulp yakuza material (including, in Velvet Hustler in 1967, a colorful homage to Godard’s Breathless). But here, early in his career, he offers a more sober, reflective narrative, one whose counterpart in the U.S. canon would be the documentary-noirs that flourished at Fox in the immediate aftermath of the war, directed by filmmakers such as Henry Hathaway (such as Call Northside 777 or The House on 92nd Street). Masuda, however, eschews his forebears’ typical emphasis on detection and the procedural. Instead, he employs an overtly discursive framework (complete with officious opening voice-over detailing the criminal malaise afflicting this typical new Japanese town) in order to present his protagonist and narrative as reflective of Japan itself, as a figurative symbol of a nation then and now.
Of course, the notion of film noir refracting postwar troubles is par for the U.S. noir landscape. Nor indeed was it alien to Japanese cinema, Kurosawa having twice adopted (and adapted) such a generic foundation for his own downbeat taking of Japan’s pulse in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. Rusty Knife goes a step further, though, by directly equating its central character with the national body itself. Like Japan, he is haunted by his recent past, a past associated with crime and personal corruption; and like his country he is currently struggling against the lure and glamor of capital, here represented by the money he is offered to avoid testifying against a criminal boss. His younger friend (played by fellow Nikkatsu youth superstar Akira Kobayashi) accepts a bribe, and in a scene reminiscent of the centerpiece in Yasuzo Masumura’s incendiary New Wave precursor Kisses, is depicted hanging around the streets with his girl on a motorbike, reveling in his new wealth and defying his society very much like a Taiyozokuprotagonist.
Such a schematic contrast in fact begins to weigh heavily on Rusty Knife, and begins to point towards the film’s shortcomings. As the narrative progresses, the characters increasingly become the kind of ciphers suggested by this thematic dichotomy, and are merely moved around like puppets on a string as the prescriptive plot-as-slavish-star-vehicle dictates. This is particularly debilitating as regards Kitahara’s token female. Her work as a social documentarian could have figured as part of the film’s discursive foundation, but instead remains entirely subservient to Yujiro’s story, serving only to unearth expositional information pertaining to his past. She also figures in a predictable last-minute twist, in which the criminal fraternity is seen to be expunged from the town—although, as in I Am Waiting, there is a tacit admission in the downbeat coda that the revenge undertaken by Yujiro has not and possibly will not repair his broken life: that the town may be cleaned of corruption but the stain on his soul will not so easily be washed away.
The provocatively titled Take Aim at the Police Van was Seijun Suzuki’s fourteenth film in less than four years as a contract director at Nikkatsu. Rarely seen before outside Japan, it offers a fascinating opportunity to assess the development of a director who had already nourished his flamboyant and subversive side in films such as Nude Girl with a Gun, and nurtured a comparatively more sober esthetic in works like Inn of the Floating Weeds and Man with a Shotgun, but who had as yet fully to find his authorial voice. In Take Aim at the Police Van, both these apparently mutually exclusive lines converge, making of the film something of a dry run for pleasures to come, an embryonic presentation of what would be in store beginning with Youth of the Beast less than three years later.
The precise tension between competing forces in Take Aim at the Police Van is felt principally in the figure of the protagonist: Daijiro Tamon. As played by Mishitaro Mizushima, male star of Nude Girl with a Gun, he is a hard-boiled penitentiary guard-cum-amateur detective who spends the movie trying to uncover the truth behind a mysterious criminal syndicate. On the one hand, he is a straightforward man of action, someone who successfully negotiates a series of set-piece obstacles while also becoming a romantic lead. On the other hand, Suzuki deigns to reveal him as something of a bumbling hack, a man out of his depth who on numerous occasions succeeds by sheer chance—indeed someone who, at the end, triumphs less due to his own abilities than to the inadequacies of his enemies and, ultimately, to a fatal accident.
Elsewhere, and in a fashion not dissimilar to its protagonist, Suzuki begins something in this film that would gather momentum in subsequent works like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards—namely, a simultaneous face-value delineation and subtextual undermining of the exigencies of his plot. Early in the film, Tamon is asked whether he likes literary mystery novels—Carr, Queen, Irish—who are valued by the woman asking the question because, she says, they are “wonderfully convoluted.” And thereafter the film repeatedly calls attention to its own increasingly convoluted and opaque plot. Most overtly, Suzuki twice brings the narrative to a full stop to allow Tamon to recap events up until that point (once in a fever dream after he has been knocked unconscious). It is this aspect of the film, along with a myriad of eccentric supporting characters, which elevates Take Aim at the Police Van above the norm, and above its generic foundation.
In contrast, Cruel Gun Story is the most straightforwardly generic and U.S.-derived (in places borderline derivative) film in this series. Its story of an ill-fated heist on an armored car by a mismatched gang led by an ex-con offers little that had not already appeared in The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Odds Against Tomorrow, or Richard Fleischer’s B-movie, template-setting masterpiece Armored Car Robbery. The set-up, and subsequent double- and triple-crosses that comprise the winding, tortuous narrative are largely standard-issue fare. What sets the film apart is a sly examination and condemnation of the U.S. presence in Japan in the postwar years. Successive acts in the drama are introduced via footage of American planes roaring overhead, like intrusive deities keeping watch over a nation famously described by Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Douglas MacArthur as akin to a twelve-year-old, while the action takes place in a nondescript, barren town seemingly being used as a party headquarters by the U.S. Army (something like a hellish mirror image of the Nantes of Jacques Demy’s Lola). A number of symbolic features and locations begin to accrue as the film progresses: from glaring sunlight and openness at the beginning (the credits unfold over shots of a road taken from a moving car) to a ceaseless, claustrophobic nighttime that towards the end of the story descend upon a dingy car repair yard and, most potently, a sewer pipe through which the protagonist has to make an escape.
Made in 1964, Cruel Gun Story thus offers a picture of an alternative Japan left behind as the real country takes its international bow with the Tokyo Olympiad and accelerates on the road to its famed bubble economy. It also evinces another link back from the new crime and action films to the Taiyozoku era (its director, Takumi Furukawa, directed Season of the Sun). And here, more so than with the brothers Ishihara, one can more profitably locate a semblance of commonality between the respective genres. In particular, the fatalistic tone so prevalent in sun-tribe literature and cinema is here stretched to tease the parameters of a potentially parodic moralistic scenario. The protagonist, played by the usually obtuse, smirkingly surreal Suzuki regular Joe Shishido, here in a serious and sympathetic dramatic role, is laden with a crippled sister he desires to heal via an operation (which is why he needs the quick cash). He is also, as in I Am Waiting and Rusty Knife, a man haunted by a murder in his past that remains a thorn in his side, and as such follows Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s film in being an essentially good, desperate man facing treachery on all sides. Cruel Gun Story thus extends the line of inquiry represented by Kurahara and Masuda’s earlier Nikkatsu noirs, and their portrait of fractured, under-pressure masculinity as a brooding, internal state of loneliness as much as an exterior arena of action.
In contrast to Cruel Gun Story’s largely generic identity, the final work in this collection—A Colt is My Passport—is a subversive delight that stands comparison with the very best of Suzuki. Indeed, Takashi Nomura’s film carries certain overtones of his contemporary’s surreal Nikkatsu swansong, Branded to Kill (made in the same year, 1967), particularly in its presentation of a lone hit-man protagonist increasingly caught between and hounded by treacherous exterior forces and factions. Even more thanTake Aim at the Police Van, A Colt is My Passport sets about dismantling and destabilizing its generic base, in particular by picking up a number of the accoutrements of the Spaghetti Western. Beginning with a Morricone-esque guitar-led score and signing off with a truly astonishing shoot-out climax in which Joe Shishido’s assassin faces off against a gang across a vast, empty wasteland, Nomura takes a stereotypical stock character and, interestingly, a proto-yakuza narrative (it owes as much to the ninkyo-eigachivalry film as it does to the noir canon, to Koji Tsuruta or Ken Takakura in The Theatre of Life: Hishakaku as much as to Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire) and makes of it a hybrid. That is, he makes a truly international noir, one whose constituent stylistic and narrative paradigms highlight both the futility of seeking homogeneity in world cinema as the 1960s progressed (in the wake of the Nouvelle Vague), and the state of uncertain in-between-ness that afflicts the protagonist, of being an individual in a country like Japan.
Ultimately, Nomura leaves A Colt is My Passport breathlessly suspended between tight, canted, high-contrast noir compositions and sweeping landscape shots captured in a scope screen that dwarfs any human activity (like the fly Shishido observes prior to battle); between genre and free-form expression; between Japan and the West. Is it a yakuza tale, a noir thriller, a wry Western fable? Is it an Eastern noir or a Western-influenced and derived borderless crime thriller. The answer is, defiantly, all of the above, and it encapsulates everything that is singular not only about A Colt is My Passport and Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki action pictures, but also about the often strange, quixotic world of Japanese genre cinema.
As is the case with all the Eclipse releases, there are no extra features on these DVDs beyond (informative) liner notes, here provided by Film Comment’s resident Asian cinema expert Chuck Stephens. For single-layered transfers, the visual quality throughout is excellent, with only the earliest features (I Am Waiting and Rusty Knife) showing any hints of fading, but even here not enough to detract from the shimmering black-and-white photography that distinguishes all five films. It is this visual design, rather than any salient formal or narrative characteristics, that truly defines the collection along globally generic lines, as true Japanese noir. For this reason, it is a truly eye-opening set—and for anyone interested in the country’s cinema in general, and more specifically in its potent symbiosis of history and genre, national and international, it makes Nikkatsu Noir an essential release.
To buy Nikkatsu Noir click here.
Adam Bingham has just completed a Ph.D. in Japanese Cinema at the University of Sheffield, England, where he also teaches Film Studies. In addition to Cineaste, he writes for CineAction, Electric Sheep, Asian Cinema and Senses of Cinema.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.