Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of Japan's most alarming directors, the provocative Yasuzo Masumura made subversive and taboo-breaking dramas like Manji and the deliriously perverse Moju (The Blind Beast). His earlier Giants and Toys is a cinematic scream of protest against cutthroat business practices within Japan's growing consumer-oriented business boom of the late 1950s. Masumura's 1962 drama Black Test Car returns to the world of business competition to draw a parallel between the development of a new car and all-out, take-no-prisoners warfare. Ethics and morals are the first casualties in a system that prioritizes career survival and company victory ahead of human decency.
Executives at the Tiger Motorcar Company are alarmed when spies from the competing Yamato Company sneak spies onto their testing grounds to witness the crash of a prototype. Toru Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) heads an internal Tiger spy force to counter Yamato spy chief Matawari, a former Army Intelligence operative. Onoda and his assistant Asahina (Jiro Tamiya) try several ploys to root out Matawari's agent within Tiger, but cannot keep Yamato from learning everything about Tiger's upcoming "Pioneer" car: Asahina bribes a printer to get blueprints for Yamato's new "MyPet" car, which turns out to be an almost exact copy of the Pioneer. Further efforts to plug the security leak involve bribery, blackmail and the use of a lip reader to snoop on Yamato meetings, but in the end Asahina is urged to get his fiancée, bar hostess Masako (Junko Kano) to steal the pricing formula for the new MyPet by sleeping with Matawari. Asahina tells Masako that he's doing it for her, so he can be promoted and they can be married. Masako throws her boyfriend's self-contradiction back in his face, but agrees to become a 'pillow spy.'
With its cavalcade of Pop Art visuals and hard-sell overkill, Yasuzo Masumura's Giants and Toys is a stand-alone shocker as powerful as Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success or Tony Richardson's The Loved One. Black Test Car chooses instead to follow a more subdued dramatic curve. Tiger's desperate executive Onoda does everything humanly possible, yet his competitors learn all about their secret car project anyway. Tiger distributes a fake stat sheet for the Pioneer car to scores of top Tiger executives. The information is in Matawari's hands in just a few hours -- and discounted -- yet the Tiger leak remains unidentified.
Most of the interest in the fast-moving story centers on Onoda and Matawari's devious spy methods. Promises are made and broken. Executives are bribed or blackmailed. Subcontractors are plied to provide information. The desperate Asahina eyes only the goal when he rationalizes asking his future wife to sleep with a corporate enemy. The all-powerful need to win for company and career motivates the basically good Onoda to kidnap and pressure executives at both Yamato and Tiger to find out who is leaking information. When he finally identifies the unstable employee responsible, Onoda locks the man in a room and puts enough pressure on him to bring on a heart attack, or a suicide attempt.
Black Test Car has echoes of Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well and also of Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Asahina may think himself just a guy trying to get ahead, like C.C. Baxter, and like Wilder's broken mirror, his betrayal of his girlfriend is represented by a ring that Matawari gives to Masako for services rendered. It was originally stolen when Matawari's soldiers massacred a Chinese town in the war; Masako drops it at Asahina's feet, saying that the precious bauble may be a rock, "but it's warmer than you."
The final media double-cross is very much like a modern political dirty trick. Pioneer's first-day sales are promising, thanks to Onoda's being able to undercut the price of Yamato's almost identical MyPet. Then the first production car stalls on a railroad track and is destroyed. Its owner howls to the press and makes a show of the "killer car" foisted on him by the criminals at Tiger. Onoda breaks all the rules of decency to get to the real truth behind the scandal.
The ending of Black Test Car is not something we expect from the uncompromising Masumura. (Spoiler again) After the scandal is resolved in Tiger's favor, Asahina makes a highly moralistic protest speech ("Who are we? The police?") and walks out on his job, dropping his company pin on the floor like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Japanese employees at the time pledged their loyalty to their companies as if joining the army, so Asahina's act is no hollow gesture. The now poor-but-honest Asahina is reunited with Masako on a beach. (final spoiler) The last joke is that they're almost run over by a Pioneer car. The story resolution is as morally conventional as a predictable American TV drama.
Fantoma's Black Test Car resumes their Masumura series, which continued with last year's weird M*A*S*H-like war hospital horror tale Red Angel. Black Test Car is presented in a clean enhanced B&W transfer with the original film's gray-ish tones. Much of the story takes place in crowded rooms with only a few montages showing the title automobile, so don't expect a movie about the development of an automobile. The Pioneer is used rather weakly as a symbol of Evil, cloaked in black with only the headlights and windshield uncovered. Somehow my late-model Toyota, a superbly engineered marvel that never breaks down and makes my earlier American cars seem like gas-guzzling junk, just doesn't seem very Evil to me.
Extras include a trailer, a still gallery and text bios and filmographies for director Masumura. Film writer Chuck Stephens contributes excellent insert liner notes, explaining that Black Test Car inspired the Daiei Company to film several 'black' exposé movies like Black Parking Lot (?) and Black Superexpress, about corruption in the track-laying for Japan's new bullet trains.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Test Car rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, still gallery, text extras
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson