Born in 1902*, Hiroshi Innami was something of an aberration in the early days of cinema in that he first joined the industry after graduating from university and directed his first film, The Golden Bullet (黄金の弾丸, Ogon no Dangan), at Toa Cinema at just 24 years old. His career, and life, were however short as he sadly passed away from tuberculosis at the young age of 36 in September 1938. Even so he managed to produce a prodigious number of films working both as a director and screenwriter though unfortunately little of his work has survived into the present day.
Adapted from a novel by Herman Landon, The Golden Bullet survives in incomplete form its fifth real presumed lost with the missing action conveyed through additional intertitles prepared for the restoration completed by the Kyoto Planet Film Archive. The source material is taken from a part of a series revolving around the “Benevolent Picaroon” who in the film at least is depicted as a kind of playful Robin Hood who daringly steals precious items from the homes of the wealthy and holds them to ransom promising to return what he’s stolen if only the victim donate 10% of its worth to charity. The Benevolent Picaroon is then known as a responsible criminal who prides himself on the fact he never resorts to violence in the course of his activities which is why Inspector Inomata is sure that he isn’t responsible for the murder of a mine owner found dead in his armchair having been shot with the very elitist weapon of golden bullets. Inomata also knows there was a woman at the scene, which raises his suspicion when he’s called to the home of a wealthy family who’ve received a ransom note from the Picaroon but have noticed nothing missing. With the daughter of the house acting suspiciously, Inomata calls in his “special friend” Kawanami to help who discovers the woman had been hiding something which is now missing in the false bottom of a decorative vase.
In many ways, The Golden Bullet is surprising for the time in that it makes no real attempt to localise Landon’s mystery save for obvious changes in name presumably taken from the Japanese translation. The production design is heavily influenced by German expressionism and the buildings largely European, a plot point revolving around the Western-style fireplace and a painting that hangs next to it in the murdered man’s home. Only the home of the wealthy family appears comparable to those seen in other contemporary dramas, more a European-style country house than the angular townhouses inhabited by the victim and the old man next door who claims to have overheard the crime. The young mistress meanwhile dresses in kimono while at home and the latest flapper fashions when out, paying a visit to Kawanami assuming him to be the Picaroon in order to ask for the return of the missing item which is of course a golden bullet she picked up from the crime scene mistakenly believing her boyfriend, the nephew of the victim, had committed the murder after a heated argument with his uncle.
Little motive is later given for the murder itself or its elaborate construction save for “gold” which perhaps hints at a discomfort with growing wealth inequality and changes in the social hierarchy as indeed does the very existence of the Picaroon who robs the rich to feed the poor while trying to force those with means to accept their communal responsibilities and give something back to the society to help the less fortunate. The Picaroon meanwhile is a chameleon Sherlock Holmes clone keen on disguises and with a strong sense of social justice, trying to help the young couple after figuring out what’s going by returning the bullet out of kindness partly for an act of compassion they once did him and partly in admiration for their love for each other because what says love better than trying to cover up murder?
Nevertheless, the Picaroon soon finds himself on the run chased down by the dogged Inomata who at times seems either obvious or calculating almost as if he doesn’t really want to catch the Picaroon after all. Bold in style, Innami opens the film with a series of illustrated intertitle cards, even at one point playfully switching the colour tint to mimic a light turning on, and ends with a high octane chase sequence as the Picaroon makes his escape firstly on foot and then by hijacking a car while chased by horses and motorbikes passing through Kobe’s foreign concession out into the lush countryside before returning to take care of some unfinished business leading to an oddly homoerotic reunion between the detective and his “special friend”. The crime may have been solved but the key to the identity of the enigmatic Picaroon must remain a mystery if perhaps wilfully so.
The Golden Bullet is available to stream worldwide courtesy of Kobe Planet Film Archive with either live music or benshi narration though English subtitles are provided for the intertitles only.
Trailer featuring benshi narration (no subtitles)
*There seems to be some confusion surrounding Innami’s birth year with some sources citing 1900 rather than 1902 (in which case he was 38 when he passed away).