Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.


Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’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.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)

Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-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 outbursts are, 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.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.


 

Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Haryasu Noguchi, 1965)

0089_86_MURDER_UN-INCORPORATED“If you don’t laugh when you see this movie, I’m going to execute you” abacus wielding hitman Komatsu warns us at the beginning of Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Dai Nihon Koroshiya-den). Luckily for us, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced to perform any “calculations”, and the only risk we currently run is that of accidentally laughing ourselves to death as we witness the absurd slapstick adventures of Japan’s craziest hitman convention when the nation’s “best” (for best read “most unusual”) contract killers descend on a small town looking for “Joe of Spades” – a mysterious assassin known only by the mole on the sole of his foot.

After the amusing Bond style opening, we witness the first victim of Joe of Spades who happens to be one of the five top gangsters in town. Sure enough, the other four then receive a threatening phone call to the effect that they’re next in line for a bullet in the brain. After ringing up an assassins agency and holding a series of auditions, the head honchos wind up with a gang of hitmen bodyguards each of whom have their own theme and wacky back story.

The leader of the gang is Heine Maki – a poetry loving, bowler hatted killer whose signature weapon is a heavy book of poems with a gun hidden inside,. He’s joined by O.N. Kane – an ex-baseball player who missed out on the major leagues through being too good and carries a baseball bat that’s really a gun, “Knife” Tatsu – ex-sushi chef knife thrower with an intense fear of fish, Al Capone III – a midget who claims to be the Japanese grandson of Al Capone and is obsessed with the Untouchables TV show, and of course Komatsu himself whose signature move is to throw his abacus in the air and invite chaos in the process.

The guys are really a little more than this small town can handle though they quickly discover the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought and wind up facing off against some equally eccentric foes. That’s not to mention the mama-san at Bar Joker who turns out to be at the center of the case and a local mechanic who’s suspiciously handy with a pistol.

There really are no words to describe the quick fire, extremely zany universe in which Murder Unincorporated takes place. This is a world ruled by crime in which each of our “heroes” showcase extremely sad backstories which explain why they had absolutely no choice but to turn to killing people to survive. Take “Knife” Tatsu for example, he became a hitman because he was unable to kill the fish gasping away on his cutting board so he decided to kill people instead. O.N. Kane turned murderous after being let down in his baseball dream, Heine has a romantic tale of lost love, Capone III simply has it in the blood, and Komatsu? He wants to be a pharmacist…

This is all inspired by legendary Japanese funnyman Kobako Hanato who is famous for his Southern Japan flavoured absurd comedy routines. Kon Ohmura, who plays Komatsu, was one of his top collaborators for a time and became one of Japan’s all time great comedians. Meta quips such as remarking that the police are about to turn up “for the first time in this film” and involved jokes like the one that sees Komatsu tracking down identical “Joes” in varieties club, diamond, heart (amusingly, dressed as a geisha and playing pachinko), before heading into a punchline it would be a crime to spoil only add to the feeling that absolutely anything could happen and that would be perfectly OK.

Director Noguchi mostly keeps things straightforward but builds a fantastic comedic rhythm managing the quick fire dialogue and general absurdity with ease. Much of the film is told in flashback or reverie but the device never becomes old so much as easily syncing with with general tone of the film. There are some more unusual sequences such the opening itself, keyhole view, and a later sequence where we see directly though Komatsu’s big square glasses but otherwise the deadpan filming approach boosts the inherent comedy in the increasingly surreal situations. Quirky, oddly innocent, absurd, and just extremely laugh out loud funny, Murder Unincorporated is a world away from Nikkatsu’s po-faced crime dramas but exists in a crazy cartoon world all of its own that proves near impossible to resist!


Murder Unincorporated is the third and final film included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.

Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Buichi Saito, 1960)

Tokyo Mighty GuyThe bright and shining post-war world – it’s a grand place to be young and fancy free! Or so movies like Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Tokyo no Abarembo) would have you believe. Casting one of Nikkatsu’s tentpole stars, Akira Kobayshi, in the lead, Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy is, like previous Kobayashi/Saito collaboration The Rambling Guitarist, the start of a franchise featuring the much loved neighbourhood big dog, Jiro-cho.

In this first instalment, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) has just returned from some overseas study in Paris where, rather than the intellectual pursuits that he planned, Jiro mostly wound up with a love of French cuisine. His parents have just opened a small French restaurant in fashionable Ginza and Jiro is now working there too despite the more lucrative paths that might be open for someone with a college education, language skills and overseas experience.

Jiro is also a hit with the ladies, and the daughter of the family that run a nearby bathhouse, Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka), has quite a crush on him though Jiro seems fairly oblivious to this fact despite her revealing to him that her family have received an offer of arranged marriage. After a high ranking official crashes his car into the family restaurant, Jiro becomes embroiled in a series of complicated local political and shady business plots which conflict strongly with his righteous and individual nature.

Tokyo Mighty Guy begins with a cute musical title sequence that would be much more at home in a glossy musical of the time than in a smalltime gangster flick which is what lurks around the edges of this feel good, youthful tale. Indeed, Kobayashi gets ample opportunity to show off those pipes as he sings to himself alone in the male side of the bathhouse and later repeats snatches of the song throughout the film. There’s a single being peddled here, but it’s being done in a fun, if unsubtle, way.

Jiro is very much a man of his age. He’s the big man in the neighbourhood – middle class, educated, studied abroad, likes the finer things such as foreign food and sharp suits, but he’s got the words social justice engraved on his heart so you know you can go to him with your troubles and he’ll help you figure them out. He doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone; he sends the yakuza protection mob packing and even convinces one of them to go straight with a trainee chef job in his restaurant. No wonder the animal loving former politician has taken such a liking to him – he’s the kind of man it’s hard not to like.

That’s not to say Jiro’s a saint, he’s out for himself just like everyone else. We can see how much distress there is for others when we venture into a rundown tenement filled with the genuine poor who have too many children and not enough resources. Actually, the film isn’t terribly kind about these people and treats them more or less as an embarrassing joke but it does demonstrate how the bigwigs have exploited the needs of the lower orders in more ways than one. Jiro, at least, won’t stand for this kind of deception and misuse of traditional social bonds but he will still use it as leverage to bring things to a fittingly ironic solution that is to the benefit of everyone aside from those that were originally in the wrong.

Cute and quirky is definitely the theme and even where there are darker elements, the cheerful atmosphere is tailor made to eclipse them. Saito doesn’t roll out any particularly impressive directorial tricks but allows the absurd humour of the script to do his work for him, highlighting it with surreal touches such as the face of an absent lover appearing in the moon or the celebratory feeling of hundreds of advertising leaflets dropping from the sky like confetti. Light and fluffy as it is, Tokyo Mighty Guy is time capsule from the socially mobile youth of Tokyo in 1960 who don’t want arranged marriages or to take over the family business. The world has opened up for them with a new vista of foreign culture and multicultural cool. The message is clear, the future belongs to guys like Jiro, and by extension to the Jiro wannabes lining up to watch him prosper from their cinema seats.


Tokyo Mighty Guy is the first of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.