Jo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.
Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.
The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.
Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.
Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).
Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.
Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (１３号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.
The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.
Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.
The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.
Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction.
Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.
Post-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.
Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.
Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.
Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outburstsare, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.
Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.
Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.
Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.
One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.
Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.
In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.
Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.
Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.
Loosely inspired by Julian Duvivier’s 1937 gangster movie Pépé le Moko, Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (赤い波止場, Akai Hatoba) was designed as a vehicle for Nikkatsu’s rising star of the time, Yujiro Ishihara – later to become the icon of the Sun Tribe generation. On paper it sounds like a fairly conventional plot – young turk of a gangster comes to town to off a guy, sees said guy killed in an “accident”, and shrugs it off as one of life’s little ironies only to accidentally become acquainted with and fall head over heals for the dead guy’s sister. So far, so film noir yet Masuda adds enough of his own characteristic touches to keep things interesting.
“Jiro the Lefty” (Yujiro Ishihara) is a sharp looking petty yakuza type in a bright white suit and sunglasses. Another of Japan’s post-war abandoned street kids, he found a home in a gang and has never known anything one could call a “normal” way of life. Other than his obvious talent with a gun, he has a cheerful and ironic personality that has him even almost respected by the police and is generally well liked in the area.
Early on Jiro rescues a little boy from almost being hit by a car and later when playing the harmonica for him gets hit by a thunderbolt of love when catching sight of the boy’s aunt, Keiko (Mie Kitahara). This causes him several problems at once: to begin with, she’s the sister of the guy he saw get hit by a crane and she doesn’t seem to know her brother was a gangster, two – Keiko is obviously of a much higher social class and a little out of his reach even if he managed to go straight, three – he can’t go straight, he doesn’t know how to do anything else, four – Mami, his current nightclub dancer “girlfriend” who’s invested a little more in the relationship than he has. Actually this is only the start of a long list of problems Jiro has to deal with, he just doesn’t know about them yet.
The story is set around the docks of Kobe where the living is hard and life is cheap. The local policeman is a fairly laid-back, ironic chap who’s made an odd sort of friendship with Jiro wherein he doesn’t really want to see anything too bad happen to him. He can see this thing with Keiko is not a very good idea and is constantly lurking in the shadows trying to control the situation as much as he can. Jiro, doesn’t know it yet but his own guys are out to get him too and after one of his sworn brothers ends up paying the price for Jiro’s rising profile in the yakuza world, he finds himself on the run from pretty much everyone.
This sounds like quite a complicated set up but Masuda manages to martial everything into a coherent order and even adds a hearty dose of realistic emotion too. As far as the aesthetic goes, Masuda takes his cues from American film noir with harsh lighting and canted angles all employed to show us the crookedness of this underground world but he also makes sure to add occasional touches of artistic flair such as the light bouncing off Jiro’s sunglasses during a night time cab ride or the sheer shock on Ishihara’s face as he first sees Keiko framed against the bright sunshine of Kobe’s harbour.
The too noble for his own good gangster who wants to go straight but knows he has a crooked heart – it’s an old story, but a good one. Red Pier pushes a lot of these ideas to the max but handles them well and adds a traditional “crime doesn’t pay” ending which is both endlessly sad and completely appropriate at the same time. You can’t help feel for Jiro and his small scale existential crisis in which the reluctant gangster wants to jump ship for more peaceful climes but can’t for both personal and societal reasons. Red Pier may not be the best Masuda/Ishihara collaboration but it is certainly an excellent example of everything its genre has to offer.
Red Pier is the Second film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.
Seijun Suzuki might be best remembered for his surrealist pop art masterpieces from the late sixties or his even less comprehensible art films which followed his return to directing after settling his dispute with Nikkatsu, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it comes as something of a relief to know that Suzuki was perfectly capable of making a straightforward movie if he wanted to. Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Kagenaki Koe) is exactly what it sounds like – a fifties style, US inspired noir however, Suzuki adds his usual flourishes and manages to wrong foot us pretty much the whole way through so that we never end up where we thought it was that we were going.
To begin with, our story is fairly straightforward. Reporter Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) provides our film noir style voice over as switchboard operator Asako (Yoko Minamida) accidentally dials a wrong number only have it picked up by a strange man who tells her she’s rung a crematorium then laughs hysterically. It turns out that the number was actually for a pawn shop which was in the process of being knocked over and the owner killed – Asako heard the perpetrator’s voice and thanks to her switchboard experience isn’t going to forget it. Ishikawa grows closer to Asako as the case becomes a media sensation but backs off after learning she’s already engaged.
Three years later Asako hears the voice again – a friend of her husband’s who keeps co-opting their living room for mahjong games that go on for days and cost everyone but him a lot of money. Before long Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) is found dead and Asako’s husband is the prime suspect but did he really do it? And if he didn’t, does Ishikawa really want to find out who did?
As you can see it’s a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any B movie noir from the fifties and the telephone set up is even a little reminiscent of Sorry, Wrong Number (though that film has a very different conclusion indeed). Based on a short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Voice, Voice Without a Shadow is full of the classic play of light and shadow that characterises the best film noir and the mood is ably supported by a suitably jazzy score from Hikaru Hayashi. If there’s a criticism to be made in this area, it’s that Nitani’s Ishikawa is a little too nice and pure hearted in comparison to the broken hearted heroes from the detective serials. He seems content to try and help Asako whilst uncovering the truth even if it ends up costing him in the end.
Although Asako herself is technically the leading character she quickly gets relegated to a more conventional woman in peril role. She is the one who recognises Hamazaki’s voice and the only clue linking him to the pawn shop murder three years ago but, while he’s alive anyway, Hamazaki is more interested in having fun terrorising everyone rather than trying to rub her out. In fact, the sudden demise of Hamazaki, played by an extremely young Jo Shishido, is one of the most surprising things about the film in which you’d expect him to remain the central antagonist right up until the grand finale.
Voice Without a Shadow is then a fairly conventional, noir inflected B movie which wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve. However, there are glimpses of Suzuki’s individual style leaking through such as in his occasional and surprising use of double exposure, innovative composition and other modernist techniques which all help to lift the rather workmanlike script onto another level. In someways, it’s all a little too nice – even Hamazaki’s nasty lowlife activities are neatly skirted around almost like a film noir that’s been through a car wash though its strange pleasantness also has a nicely refreshing quality.
A minor film from the master of the surreal then, but an interesting one none the less. The mystery element proves satisfying even if it could do with a little more dirt under its fingernails and the committed performances also do their bit to enhance the mood. A prime example of its genre, Voice Without a Shadow is a notably restrained entry in Suzuki’s back catalogue but its classical style mixed with an offbeat, absurdist undercurrent make it one worth seeking out.
Voice Without a Shadow is the first film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.
Arrow double whammy up at UK Anime Network as I review both of Arrow’s recent Yasuharu Hasebe releases – Massacre Gun and Retaliation!
Arrow have been turning up some hidden gems and neglected classics as they trawl through the world of the populist cinema from the Japanese golden age of the 1960s and 70s – they’ve already brought us the iconic Lady Snow Blood, the lesser known Blind Woman’s Curse, the anarchic Stray Cat Rock series and now, following on from their release of Seijun Suzuki’s famously crazy Branded to Kill they’ve turned their attention back to Nikkatsu Noir with Massacre Gun. The first of two releases from director Yasuhiro Hasebe who also directed three films in the Stray Cat Rock series (Retaliation will follow next month), Massacre Gun has everything any genre fan could wish for – depressed hit men, warring gangs, jazz bars, boxing clubs, stylish monochrome photography and the melancholic ennui that permeates all the best noir movies. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the greatest hits of Nikkatsu Noir such as the afore mentioned Branded to Kill or Nikkatsu’s other offerings like A Colt is My Passport, Massacre Gun is nevertheless another impressive entry in the studio’s short lived action output.
As the film begins, thoroughly dejected Kuroda has just been asked to carry out a hit on a woman who is in love with him – feelings which he may have have reciprocated but, but like any good lackey, Kuroda chose his boss over his heart and sent the love sick girl into a lake with a bullet in her chest. When Kuroda’s two younger brothers find out they do not approve and hot headed youngest brother Saburo who trains at a yakuza run gym hoping to become a a pro-boxer, decides to have a word with Kuroda’s boss, Akazawa. As might be expected things don’t go Saburo’s way and he’s brutally beaten to the extent his hands are all but crushed leaving him unlikely to box again. At this point, Kuroda wants out of the game – but for a yakuza hit man there is no out. His only option is to take down Akazawa’s empire and build one of his own.
Like most of Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s action output which would later retroactively become known as Nikkatsu Noir, Massacre Gun is heavily indebted to the American B-movie and particularly to the film noir. Its settings are those of “low culture”, Western bars and cafes where people drink expensive whiskey and wear sharp suits and sunglasses. In fact, the Kuroda brothers’ side business involves running a jazz bar with a half Japanese-half African American jazz singer playing piano in the corner and a pair of Western dancers doing some sort of scantily clad, artistic ballroom dancing routine in the middle. Most importantly it’s full of the classic Film Noir feeling of spiritual emptiness and existential ennui with the very depressed contract killer Kuroda at its centre.
A very male affair (perhaps the key missing element from a Film Noir is a femme fatale), the bulk of the film is the opposition between Kuroda on the one side and his former boss on the other. Other than the closeness with his two younger brothers and to a lesser extent the other workers at the club, Kuroda’s other most notable relationship is with his old friend Shirasaka who coincidentally married another woman Kuroda may have had feelings for. Though the two have enjoyed a close friendship up until now, Kuroda’s decision to leave Akazawa’s employ has meant Shirasaka has had to make a choice and he’s chosen Akazawa. The two are are now mortal enemies on opposing sides of a war – a fact which causes them both pain but which, nevertheless, cannot be otherwise.
Hasebe is best known for his striking use of colour which makes Massacre Gun a notable entry in his filmography as it’s the only one he made in black and white. Other than the perverse habit of sticking colours into the names of his leading characters and locations (the “Kuro” in Kuroda means “black”, the “Shira” in Shirasaka means “white” and the “Aka” in “Akazawa” means red making this one very complicated game of checkers), Hasebe still manages to make an oddly “colourful” film even in monochrome. Taking a cue from Suzuki, Hasebe has come up with a fair few arty and unusual compositions of his own though not quite to Suzuki’s absurd extremities and neatly retained the classic Nikkatsu Noir aesthetic in his superbly crisp black and white colour palate.
Coming as a late addition to the genre, Massacre Gun also takes a fairly unusual approach to violence with a far more explicit representation than would be expected from this period. Simply put – lots of people die in this film, many of them in quite exciting ways. Blood is everywhere and there are so many bullets fired you start to wonder if some one in the yakuza equivalent of the administration department isn’t having some kind of heart attack behind the scenes. Massacre Gun might not be the best entry in the Nikkatsu Noir series, but it is perhaps one of the most typical. Edgy and arty, exquisitely framed and perfectly photographed it brings out the effortless cool that came to symbolise Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s output. Aside from all that – it’s just fun as most of these films are. Another welcome release from Arrow who continue to root out these lesser known genre movies, Massacre Gun is a must see for fans of classic ‘60s action movies.
Arrow are back with another neglected classic of Japanese action cinema produced by Nikkatsu – Retaliation, a slightly later film from Yasuharu Hasebe director of Massacre Gun and three out of five of the Stray Cat Rock series. Unlike Massacre Gun (but like every other film Hasebe ever made), Retaliation is shot in colour and features Hasebe’s trademark use of it. Retaliation is very typical of its genre in someways and very not in others. It stands on something of a borderline seemingly symptomatic of Nikkatsu’s eventual slide into a producer of soft core pornography as their Roman Porno line of sex and violence based movies took over as their main production style. Not as strong as some of the other entries from around this time, Retaliation nevertheless marks itself out as an interesting addition to the genre.
Not one of the most exciting plots in yakuza movie history, Retaliation’s main mcguffin centres around trying to persuade some farming families to sell their ancestral land to developers who want to build a factory there. Having just been released from prison after taking the fall for gang murder, Jiro is offered the chance to head up his own group, however his patch is between two rivals and his best bet is to play the two off against each other as they both vie for this disputed farmland. One group is super old school and the other is the more modern type of thug who’ll do pretty much anything to get what they want – including abducting one of the farmer’s daughters and molesting her in the back of a car as a way to threaten her father. Jiro is given his own mini team to help out on his mission including an out of work actor and card shark, and another top yakuza guy who just happens to be the brother of the man he went to prison for killing and who has already vowed to killed Jiro in revenge. Jiro sometimes dreams of going straight and leading a different kind of life but gang loyalty still means something to him and those outside of the life aren’t always so understanding. Retaliation is the only way to stay alive in this new, empty yakuza world.
Retaliation starred three of Nikkatsu’s famed “Diamond Line” stars – Akira Kobayashi is the film’s lead leaving Jo Shishido playing second fiddle (his star had fallen a little at Nikkatsu and they didn’t see him as an actor who could carry a colour film as the leading man), and Hideki Nitani coming in third. Tatsuya Fuji and Meiko Kaji round out the almost famous section of the cast and each would soon find fame (or notoriety) in the new landscape of ‘70s Japanese cinema. There’s undoubtedly an air of everybody just doing what they do – it is after all what they’ve been employed for but at the same time no one’s really pushing themselves to do anything very notable. That said, you do have five of the biggest (or soon to be biggest) names of the time in one movie which gives it a feeling of a prestige project. However, in another move that anticipates the direction in which Nikkatsu was headed, the sex and violence quotient has been significantly upped.
Nikkatsu action films could already be shockingly violent for the time period, but Retaliation unfortunately adds a layer of sexualised violence against women which is undoubtedly being offered up as something for the viewer to enjoy. The early scene in which Meiko Kaji’s farmgirl is molested by a gang of thugs before being dumped at her parents’ house is unsettling on one level, but is shot with such a voyeuristic camera style that it’s difficult to not feel complicit in this fairly horrific act. There’s even another such sequence later in the film when one yakuza is forced to give up a girl he’s with so all his yakuza mates can have a go first which is again shot with a lingering camera often cutting back to the salivating gangsters. Of their time in one sense, these sadly salacious scenes of sexual violence against women filmed with an encouraging eye give the film an unwelcome sleazy quality from which it is hard to bounce back.
The other notable theme of the film is that it positions itself between the glamorous, modern samurai, gangster movies of the past and the grittier tales of modern thugs that were about to become the mainstream narrative. Jiro has been away for a long time, the yakuza world has moved on and his old clan would have died out if weren’t for another gang’s generosity. Jiro is the last of the honourable men who place loyalty above personal gain and seek to protect women and the put upon rather than exploiting them. Unfortunately, modern yakuza think differently and it’s no small irony that it’s a group of farmers they’re falling over themselves to ruin given that farmers are the very people old school yakuza, as the receivers of samurai values, would be expected to protect. Jiro and some of his cohorts still believe in these “old fashioned” ideas and are thought brave and noble. The other gangs who rape and torture women whilst forcing farmers off the land they’ve worked for centuries are not.
Again, it’s a fairly manly affair with women becoming little more than props to be used and abused throughout the film but the relationship between the two central guys Jiro and Hino takes on an oddly homoerotic context even ending with Shishido’s character getting rid of his girlfriend because he apparently falls in love too easily before telling Jiro that this is the first time it’s been with a guy. Considering their relationship began with Hino determined to kill Jiro, to end it with a quasi declaration of love (even half in jest) is a pretty steep character arc but one of the better things about the film.
Retaliation isn’t a perfect film, and it might not have the most exciting basis for its plot machinations but it certainly has its moments. Entertaining enough, the film is marred by its unpleasant treatment of women and takes a few dramatic missteps towards the end. The action is good however, as are the performances and production values. Perhaps not an essential Nikkatsu action movie but nevertheless a very interesting one from several different perspectives, Retaliation deserves a view from the genre’s committed fans.
Both available now in the UK on DVD & blu-ray from Arrow Films!
One of my favourite films – Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill reviewed at uk-anime.net!
In the words of the bosses at Nikkatsu who chose to fire Seijun Suzuki immediately after the film was released in cinemas, Branded to Kill is ‘incomprehensible’. The same bosses then went on to add that they were stopping Suzuki’s monthly salary with immediate effect because his films never made any sense or any money and that he should probably give up being a film director because no one else was going to hire him. To be frank, it was their loss. ‘Incomprehensible’ is one way to describe the film, it’s almost fair though the plot and shooting style feel more straightforward than his previous film, the psychedelic yakuza movie Tokyo Drifter. Like Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill is the story of a tough guy killer but this time around our ‘hero’ turns out to be much less self aware.
Hanada (Joe Shishido) is one of the top hit men operating in the Tokyo underworld (though perhaps not *the* best). His latest assignment is to escort a someone across town assisted by his alcoholic hit man friend. However, they’re ambushed and his friend is killed though the client reaches his destination safely. On the way home, Hanada’s car breaks down but a pretty girl, Misako, stops to give him a lift. Completely besotted, Hanada returns home to play odd sex games with his wife all over the house whilst sucking in the smell of boiling rice from the rice cooker to put himself in the mood. Becoming more and more obsessed with Misako, he agrees to take on an impossible hit which goes wrong after a butterfly lands on his sights. Accordingly, Hanada then loses his status as one of the top guys and begins to become increasingly insistent on claiming the number one slot for himself.
As you can see, the suits at Nikkatsu may have had a point. Essentially, Branded to Kill takes a fairly standard B-movie gangland plot where multiple guys duke it out for the top spot but it adds in multiple layers of quirky humour and surreality that were definitely not part of Suzuki’s brief. The first section of the film shows you Hanada’s tough and resourceful nature as he takes down the ambushers and completes his original mission in a cool headed fashion. His subsequent assignments have him showing a little more flair whether perfectly timing his shot to fire through the opening of a giant cigarette lighter on billboard, escaping via hot air balloon, or in the famous sequence in which he assassinates an optician by firing through the drainage pipes which lead to his sink. Unfortunately though, Hanada made a serious miscalculation when he accepted Misako’s job offer – as his friend told in him in the beginning, booze and women will get you killed. Stripped of his status and now a wanted man, Hanada’s fragile grip on his identity begins to crumble leaving him at the mercy of his own desires.
Misako herself is obsessed with death. She tells Hanada on their first meeting that her dream is to die and shows him the dead black canary she has hanging from her rear view mirror. Her house is filled with taxidermy birds and black butterflies and it’s hard not to see her as a kind of death goddess, luring Hanada from his certain path of simple but precise killing to one of neurotic questioning. Hanada’s relationship with his wife, Mami, also appears quite strange as in he seems not to care very much about her. He uses her for sex (whilst ordering her to cook him up a fresh batch of rice which, it seems, is what he really wants) but then seems faintly annoyed that she exists and barely seems to care when he telephones his boss but it’s Mami that answers the phone. She appears fairly devoted to him, though intolerant of his fetish for the smell of cooking rice, and is hurt by his lack of attentiveness. During the course of the film, both women will try to kill him and both will suffer directly or indirectly at his hands. Even the strangely homoerotic relationship he develops with the mythical No.1 is fuelled by death – what is it, really, that Hanada has been looking for?
Speaking of strange relationships, as part of this set Arrow have also provided the 1973 ‘Pink film’ remake of Branded to Kill, Trapped in Lust. Following Suzuki’s departure, Nikkatsu was taken over by new management who moved more into the realms of explicit sex and violence in the hope of recapturing an audience that was deserting the cinema for TV. Known as the ‘Roman Porno’ line Nikkatsu continued to pour out a series of explicit sex films, some of which were more ‘arty’ than others. Trapped in Lust is only loosely based on Branded to Kill but its protagonist is a more of a would be hit man who blows his chances by breaking the rules but still desperately wants to be taken seriously. Though it lacks Suzuki’s directorial flare, it makes up for it with sheer weirdness. How often can you say the villain turns out to be a ventriloquist and his doll in which you’re never quite sure which one is actually in control? These sorts of films have lots of rules about what can and can’t be shown including the prohibition on visible pubic hair which might explain the marker pen like scribble at one point where, presumably, the actress’ towel fell down unexpectedly. Pure wish fulfilment, Trapped in Lust has a slightly more upbeat ending (for the protagonist at least) and is worth seeing for its total bizarreness alone but is perhaps more interesting than actually enjoyable.
After being fired by Nikkatsu Suzuki entered a lengthy tribunal process (which he eventually won) and didn’t make another film for ten years. Strange, surreal and other worldly from its more straightforward beginnings to its boxing ring show down, Branded to Kill is one of the most perfectly constructed, but totally insane, B movie extravaganzas ever created. ‘Incomprehensible’? No. Well, a little bit – but only in the best possible way. Like all of Seijun Suzuki’s movies, Branded to Kill defies description or explanation and must be seen to be believed. A genre bending classic, Branded to Kill is a true must see and perfect example of late sixties weird cinema.
Also, hot on the heals of Arrow’s dual format DVD/BD combo of Branded to Kill, Eureka/Masters of Cinema announced today that they’ll be releasing a dual format release of Suzuki’s earlier colour film, Youth of the Beast!
Everybody’s going Seijun Suzuki crazy which can only be a very good thing! Now someone hurry up and release the Taisho trilogy.