Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Big, and black, in Japan: Nikkatsu Noir

Nikkatsu Noir, Eclipse’s new box set of mukokuseki, or borderless crime thrillers, from Japan’s Nikkatsu film studio, spanning the years 1957 through 1967, does indeed convey a persuasive sense of the trans-Pacific kinship alluded to in its title. By ’57, film noir, having been brewing in American studios for more than 15 years, had been given a name, and as a style/genre/theme/what-have-you it was becoming increasingly self-conscious. The films in Nikkatsu Noir prove that postwar Japanese filmmakers were taking notes. Noir lurks in the opening credits rolling over headlights on unspooling pavement; in the voice-overs and flashbacks; in the brutal violence and jazz-hued scores; in the haunted antiheroes, loose women and well-heeled heavies; in the cynical, urban and seedy but decidedly modern milieu. There are also numerous nods toward concurrent trends in western and teen exploitation imports. Yet for all that these films remain deeply Japanese in their formal exactitude, moral codes, awareness of tradition, and most especially in their social concerns during an era of seismic upheaval.

Set along the Yokohama waterfront, I Am Waiting (1957) re-teamed boyish heartthrob Yujiro Ishihara and taiyozoku siren Mie Kitahara after their collaboration on the incendiary hit Crazed Fruit (56). They meet on a foggy night after Ishihara’s ex-pugilist closes down his dockside restaurant to post a letter to his brother in Brazil. He sees her alone by the water, a “ canary who’s forgotten how to sing.” The image of their figures isolated within the gloom of night water will later be elegantly contrasted by a beautiful, tender scene that director Koreyoshi Kurahara lets play out in its entirety with the shadowy stars silhouetted against the dazzlingly sunlit surface of that same water in the late afternoon. The two are bonded by their longing for escape from a Japan that seemingly offers them nothing, by preternatural brushes with violence, and a connection to the Yokohama underworld that won’t let them rest until they fight their way out.

Ishihara returns in Rusty Knife (58), once more running a humble business, once more trying to wash blood from his hands, once more giving a dynamic, riveting, and rather hammy melodramatic performance. Kitahara returns too, though this time around as a noble figure as yet untainted by the surrounding corruption. Ishihara’s girlfriend was raped and suicided and he did five years for killing her assailant. Kitahara’s father also suicided, though it comes to light early in Rusty Knife that the suicide was staged by his enemies. As in I Am Waiting, their enemies turn out to be the same self-satisfied, overconfident yakuza gleefully capitalizing on Japan’s economic miracle. Highlights include French-speaking gangsters, a truck chase, and a sequence where a reckless kid takes his girlfriend for one crazy motorbike ride.

Things gets really crazy however with Branded to Kill director Seijun Suzuki’s arrestingly titled Take Aim at the Police Van (60). The images, shards of exposition and fragments of almost Godardian text-cues pile up in quick succession—a hand lovingly stroking a rifle; a series of road signs viewed through a rifle sight that ominously read IN THIS AREA HAVE OCCURRED MANY ACCIDENTS; a guy in a bus drawing the symbol for “Aki” with his finger on a steamy window over and over; a woman waiting alone under a freeway overpass—and then it happens, the attack on the police van carrying several convicts that results in two deaths and one six-month suspension for supervising officer Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima). He doesn’t mind the time off so much as the ambiguity as to who staged the attack, and why. “I’m just a prison officer,” Tamon says in voice-over. “I should leave it to the cops. But I’m not going to.” Tamon turns self-appointed detective, following a wayward trail littered with naked archery murders, attractive but suspicious women, and this one thug who’s always getting disarmed or spilling drinks all over himself. Sharing something with the kinetic style of Sam Fuller, Suzuki’s camera often seems on the verge of doing gymnastics. Take Aim at the Police Van is all over before you know it, leaving you dazzled and confused, and quite satisfied.

Giant-cheeked Joe Shishido gets thrown off a train in the first 15 minutes of
Rusty Knife, but he’s back with a vengeance in Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (64). Guy looks like he’s got the mumps but still comes off as tough as Lee Marvin, here playing a convict with an ugly past let out of the pen early under the auspices of some big-time yakuza who want him to lead a heist involving a truck full of gambling receipts, one cold-blooded junky, a disabled lawyer, and a climax brimming with gunfire and dynamite, and a staggering body count. Anybody offering spectacular death workshops to movie actors in Japan in 1964 must have made a killing.

“Morals or money, what will it be?” a flabby old yakuza boss asks his nubile massage therapist. We know what her answer will be, but with Shishido’s hitman antihero Shuji Kamimura it’s a little trickier. Takashi Nomura’s
A Colt is My Passport (67)—can these titles get any better?—opens with Kamimura’s careful execution of an arduous hit on a major crime boss. We’re disoriented with quick, jazzy cuts from one setting to another, from gunfire to an engine being started, from wide shots to close-ups, the contrast reflecting the eerie disconnect between an assassin’s rifle and his distant, silent target. Immediately following the killing, Kamimura and his young partner Shun (Jerry Fujio) are to destroy the evidence, take their earnings, and flee the country. But the film turns out to be mainly about just how difficult this last part can be.

Kamimura and Shun wind up at a seaside inn full of rough truckers and a waitress (Chitose Kobayashi) with whom everyone seems to fall in love, though she only goes for the brooding bad guys in suits. Harumi Ibe’s score echoes Morricone. The cubist cutting style seems aligned to Point Blank (67). Shun will sing a pretty song and get beaten to a pulp, while Kamimura will have to make some tough choices fast, and take a stand against an overwhelming number of thugs hot for his blood in a surprisingly rich and elegiac climax, not only to this film, but to Eclipse’s fascinating and very fun little cinematic showcase.

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