|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Ready for hard-bitten heroes that dare to defy police dragnets and mob vengeance? Eclipse's Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir will be new cinema territory for American crime fans that have already exhausted the classics of Hollywood noir. A few years back the Criterion Collection opened our eyes to the expressive French thrillers of the 1950s and 60s. We've also been given a number of eccentric and stylistically bizarre examples of Japanese crime cinema, such as Underworld Beauty. But this set of five Nikkatsu pictures opens up new horizons.
The incisive liner notes on Eclipse's discs tell us that Japan's Nikkatsu studio found a new area of cinema exploitation after the success of Season of the Sun and Crazed Fruit (both 1956), movies about the affluent, aimless and destructive younger generation. Those films made a star of Yujiro Ishihara, a young man with a very non-Hollywood set of crooked teeth. For a couple of years Ishihara was turning out a new film every six weeks or so. Like our own American-International Pictures, Nikkatsu found a commercial niche in exploitation-oriented action melodramas about rebellious youth and violent gangsters. These "borderless" films embraced rebel subject matter but also looked outside Japanese cinema for its approach to genre. These five crime thrillers are clearly modeled from existential American and French examples.
By the late 1950s the formal noir look in America had retreated to television, but Japan's visually oriented filmmakers clearly recognized and valued both the style and its themes. The reluctant Nikkatsu heroes are quick with their fists and guns, but they also take time-outs to get drunk and verbalize their feelings of angst and alienation.
1957's I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze) pairs Yujiro Ishihara with Mie Kitahara, another young star from the delinquency hit Crazed Fruit. Director Koreyoshi Kurahara goes in for a dank waterfront ambience very much in the spirit of French crime pictures; we wouldn't be surprised to see Jean Gabin stroll into one of Kurahara's fogbound, Dutch-angled compositions.
Disillusioned romanticism is the key to the story of Joji (Ishihara), an ex- prizefighter who killed a man in a bar fight before being abandoned by his beloved brother. Mie Kitahara is Saeko, a battered cabaret singer trapped in her job by a gangster / club owner. Moody atmospherics and good performances dominate the familiar story right up to the expected violent showdown. The baby-faced Ishihara is surprisingly good at projecting physical prowess, a talent put to good use when he intimidates a hood into surrendering a pistol, Humphrey Bogart- style.
From 1958, Toshio Masuda's Rusty Knife (Sabita knife) is presented in glorious B&W and Nikkatsu Scope. Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara are back again in a more socially oriented story -- the heroine is a girl reporter dedicated to helping the police cure Japanese society of criminal violence. Ishihara plays Tachibana, another man unable to escape a dark past. Tachibana wants to put his underworld life behind him, but hasn't shaken the violent streak that sent him to prison for five years.
Obsessive, fated noir flashbacks haunt Tachibana with the rape and subsequent suicide of his innocent sweetheart, and a grisly political assassination passed off as suicide. Tachibana refuses to inform against the mob despite the entreaties of the beautiful Keiko (Kitahara), the daughter of the murdered politician. In an odd touch, the mysterious kingpin behind the street gangsters issues his instructions anonymously over the radio, in the style of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse.
Director Masuda makes good use of moody bar and nightclub locations; the most memorable action sequences happen at night. Contrasting with Tachibana and Keiko are a second couple, another witness to the assassination and his "slut" girlfriend, who foolishly take the mob's hush money. Avoiding traditional yakuza dust-ups, the action confrontations include a duel between two trucks and a battle in which the hero defends himself against a sword-wielding assailant with nothing more than the rusty knife of the title.
The most extreme entry in the collection is 1960's Take Aim at the Police Van (Sono gososha o nerae), a dizzy thriller with a surprising action set piece in every reel. The eccentric, kinetic style employed by Seijun Suzuki is reminiscent of the films of Don Siegel, Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich. Even mundane scenes carry a visual kick of one kind or another, as when a train, bus and auto parallel each other on the way to Tokyo. A killer treats his high powered rifle like a fetish object, while highway warning signs provide him with both a range guide and ironic advice. The corpses pile up in the manic action scenes, as victims are tossed off cliffs and run over by cars and trains alike. In one memorably exotic murder, a private stripper is killed while entertaining some businessmen -- by a hunting arrow fired into her breast.
At the core of Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay is the femme fatale Yuko (Misako Watanabe), a traditional beauty by day and an ambiguous underworld boss by night. Yuko has the misfortune to fall in love with disgraced prison guard Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima), who is conducting a Marlowe-like personal investigation into a shocking ambush killing. At one point Yuko asks Tamon if he likes mysteries by Ellery Queen and William Irish. Our hero prefers Japanese mysteries.
Seijun Suzuki provides a rapid series of violent encounters and risky-looking stunts. As an extra fillip, the film features a rock 'n' roll- crazed teen put in jeopardy by a kidnapping-prostitution ring. The director's acute sense of Japan's hip, American-influenced youth culture is already fully in evidence as the street girls snap their fingers to the music of a jukebox. In keeping with his anarchic reputation Suzuki doesn't bother wrapping up the story's many loose ends: we're still not very certain who fired that deadly arrow. But for originality and sheer pulp exuberance, Take Aim at the Police Van outdoes the latest James Bond films.
Nikkatsu's crime stories gradually became even more westernized. The final two titles in the set feature actor Joe Shishido, who figured in a small part as a blackmailer in Rusty Knife before becoming a major action star. Best known here for his strange turn in Seijun Suzuki's surreal Branded to Kill, Shishido underwent elective plastic surgery to make his cheeks puff out. This "enhancement" certainly gives the star a distinctive appearance, although this reviewer can't get past the mental image of a woodchuck with the mumps.
1964's Cruel Gun Story (Kenju zankoku monogatari) shows the Nikkatsu house style becoming less distinctive. The storyline of Stanley Kubrick's 1956 The Killers is lifted almost wholesale and extended with additional nail-biting suspense scenes. Caper leader Togawa's (Shishido) brutal robbery of an armored car carrying racetrack receipts is thwarted by treachery from above and below, and motivated by generic sentimental concerns -- including a crippled sister who needs an important operation.
The dark romance of the earlier Ishihara vehicles gives way to full-bore nihilism. Togawa rashly blurts out "God can go to hell", an attitude that doesn't suggest a happy outcome. Director Takumi Furakura isn't as visually distinctive as Seijun Suzuki but maintains an agreeable level of credibility and tension. Gang spy Rie (Chieko Matsubara) begins the film eavesdropping like Marie Windsor in the Kubrick film, but turns out to be a loyal trouper. As befits Shishido's image as a noble but doomed loser, Cruel Gun Story works its way to a grim finish.
Distinctions between Japanese and foreign influences are almost gone by the time of 1967's A Colt Is My Passport (Colt wa ore no passport), which again showcases Joe Shishido as the coolest cat behind a trigger. The sharp B&W Nikkatsu Scope image indicates an improved grade of film stock, and the direction of Takashi Nomura is Western-slick as opposed to Japanese-eccentric.
The influence of spaghetti westerns is immediately apparent in guitar riffs that emulate Ennio Morricone's soundtracks for Sergio Leone; the final showdown occurs in an abstract industrial wasteland that clashes with the relative realism of earlier scenes. Professional killer Shuji (Shishido) and his best buddy Shun (Jerry Fujio) team up to eliminate a mob boss, only for his employers to join forces with the remnants of the victim's organization. The resourceful Shuji employs unlikely James Bond devices that just happen to become useful in a clinch, like an extra brake on his getaway car. Shuji disposes of his murder weapons by throwing them into a Goldfinger- like auto crusher.
Passport charts a number of attempts by mob thugs to intercept Shuji and Shun in a busy port town. Hotel maid Mina (Chitose Kobayashi) helps them hide and contributes a sentimental angle with her determination to escape from her circumstances. In a nice touch, the gangsters carry no clout with the tough barge sailors, and are forced to respect the inviolability of the docks. The film stages all of its action scenes in real locations, adding greatly to their impact.
That climactic confrontation is a show-stopper with touches of the Italian Django films (a trap resembling a grave) and some hi-jinks with explosives that are pure tough-guy escapism. Derived mostly from Western models, the exciting thriller hints at the decline of the Nikkatsu crimer as an independent genre spur.
Eclipse's relatively plain-wrap presentation gives film historian Chuck Stephens' excellent liner notes ample space to fully explain a Japanese genre spur essentially unknown here. With its interesting hybrid of local styles and American noir themes, the Eclipse Nikkatsu Noir disc set will be a must for fans of exotic crime cinema.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.