Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

“Money and power rule now, honour means nothing” according to the new bread of upstarts gangsters in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Tokyo Nagaremono). In many ways, what separates Nikkatsu’s youthful crime movies from Toei’s yakuza epics is that the nobility of Toei’s heroes is rarely questioned. In a Toei movie, it’s the world that’s wrong because the code is good and should be obeyed just as the hero obeys it, but in a Nikkatsu picture nihilism rules. The code isn’t right either, in fact it’s just another tool to manipulate and the hero, while noble, is wrong to follow it. 

That is in essence how Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) will end up a Tokyo drifter, caught between the old world and a new consumerist Japan in which even the yakuza is attempting to corporatise and reform its image. His old boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), has done just that only he’s had to take out a sizeable loan from another former gangster turned real estate agent, Yoshii (Michio Hino), to do it. Realising his weakness, the upstart Otsuka gang sees an opportunity and stages an elaborate ruse that allows them to get their hands on Kurata’s valuable building and take out Yoshii at the same time though it results in Yoshii’s secretary (Tomoko Hamakawa), also the girlfriend of one of the Otsuka gang, getting caught in the crossfire. 

Tetsu describes his relationship with Kurata as like father and son and is sure he would never betray him. To preserve their new image, Tetsu does not fight back when ambushed by Otsuka goons and even puts himself on the hook for the secretary’s murder, but as much as Kurata insists he wouldn’t betray one of his “kids” to make things easier for himself perhaps he will if the situation calls for it. A defector from Otsuka’s gang, Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), tries to warn Tetsu that his faith in ideals like duty and loyalty is misplaced but Tetsu refuses to believe him. “Don’t shatter my dreams” Tetsu pleads, claiming that he cannot be around someone with “no sense of duty”.

Tetsu even feels sorry for Shooting Star, attributing his melancholy air to his having lost his sense of purpose in his disillusionment with post-war gangsterism. He might have a point in Shooting Star’s world weariness, but fails to realises that Shooting Star does in fact have a sense of duty and is in some ways the film’s only truly free man in forging it for himself from basic humanitarian values if tinged with a degree of cynicism. Though the pair clash, Shooting Star claims that he wants to save Tetsu from the pain of his inevitable betrayal and the disillusionment that will eventually come with it rendering him a perpetual wanderer and exile from mainstream society. 

Both men are in a sense lost amid the rapid social changes of their era, unable to move on from the post-war past into the new society even after breaking with the yakuza code in order to live by their own. In Suzuki’s complex colour scheme, Shooting Star is always clad in a forest-like green which echoes his freedom, while Otsuka is represented by a bloody red, and Tetsu dressed in an innocent powder blue suit until the final confrontation in which, along with his equally innocent love interest Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) who had previously been associated with the colour yellow, is dressed in a pure white while all around him are now in black as representatives of those who have succumbed to the amoral capitalism of the the contemporary society. 

Suzuki even has Tetsu walk down an arched corridor reminiscent of a church into an abstract space expanding the stage at the club to lend this moment of existential struggle a little more theatricality. In a sense what Tetsu does is an act of suicide, severing his ties to the yakuza world by smashing Kurata’s glass and killing at least the image of him as a father figure to become a new man or perhaps a wandering ghost who no longer has a home and must even give up his romance with Chiharu in an acknowledgement of his exile. On Otsuka’s death, it’s almost like an alarm is switched off in the sudden shift from red to white in the giant statue standing behind Chiharu, the survivors united in white but rather than the wedding suggested by the colour of their clothes the atmosphere is funereal as Tetsu accepts he can no longer stay in this temporary space and must enter another sort of purgatory as lonely wander comforted only by his newfound freedom.


Tokyo Drifter screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 4 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Hunter’s Diary (猟人日記, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

Ko Nakahira is most closely associated with the seminal Nikkatsu Sun Tribe film Crazed Fruit which sent Yujiro Ishihara to stardom though he began his career at Shochiku in 1948 alongside Seijun Suzuki who like Nakahira would transfer to the newly re-established Nikkatsu when it resumed production in 1954. Suzuki was rather famously let go in 1968 due to creative differences with Nakahira also leaving the studio that year in similar circumstances having decamped to Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong in 1967 where he remade some of his previous hits including 1964’s Hunter’s Diary (猟人日記, Ryojin Nikki). 

Based on a mystery novel by Masako Togawa who in fact stars in her only film role as the hero’s little seen wife, Hunter’s Diary is one of a string of films in the mid-1960s critical of the functioning of the legal system in the post-war society. Nakahira opens with a lengthy sequence introducing new forensic technologies which anticipate the use of DNA as an investigative tool in the use of blood type analysis to place a suspect at a crime scene. This science will however be undercut by the sympathetic lawyer Hatanaka (Kazuo Kitamura) who reminds us that the presence of such evidence is not proof in and of itself in much the same way that DNA has since become the new smoking gun and is as susceptible to misuse as any other kind of forensic technique. 

It’s a problem for the hero, Honda (Noboru Nakaya), because his blood type is incredibly rare. In fact he was once in the paper for saving a baby by coming to the rescue with a donation just in time which as we later discover is ironic because much of his behaviour is shaped by the loss of his own child who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta and did not survive. The traumatic circumstances of the birth left his wife, Taneko, with a fear of pregnancy that eventually destroyed their marriage. The couple now live largely apart, she in her family’s country mansion painting disturbing pictures and he in the city “hunting” women for one night stands adopting the persona of a man who is foreign or part-Japanese. There is something of the fear of foreignness seen in other similarly themed films of the era in the fact that Honda’s child is born in Mexico while the couple had met and married in the US, Taneko convinced that had they returned to Japan earlier her baby may have survived while Honda claims that “intellectual” women are drawn to foreign men as he assumes his rather creepy “Monsieur Soubra” alter-ego complete with a funny accent and slightly broken Japanese. 

He positions his “hunting” as a way of dealing with the collapse of his marriage and his guilt over the death of his child overcoming his sense of impotence through transgressive sexuality though many of the women Hatanaka later interviews describe him as disappointingly vanilla and as we discover his games might have begun long before. Meanwhile the women are themselves judged for their sexuality, the discovery of a male muscle magazine in the home of a mousy spinster somewhat amusing to Honda while the unintended darkness of his sport is brought home by the film’s opening sequence in which a 19-year-old woman who became pregnant after he seduced and abandoned her takes her own life in shame and desperation only to be branded an “idiot” by her grieving sister for having slept with a man she had only just met. When a previous conquest of his is murdered in her apartment, Honda is momentarily worried but assumes it’s a grim coincidence. When her death is followed by that of a woman who could have provided him with an alibi he comes to the conclusion that someone is trying to frame him. 

Hatanaka’s conviction is that “the law is everything in court” and that Honda should not be judged on his moral character for his sleazy philandering only on the basis of the evidence presented which he believes may have been deliberately planted to incriminate him. His investigations take him to unlikely places discovering the potentially unethical practices of blood donation programs along with the illegal sale of blood and other bodily fluids such as semen while seeing the tables turned on visiting a gay bar where a male sex worker reports a weird encounter with a suspicious client, and salesman continues to frequent a Turkish bath hoping to run into a woman who seduced him but may only have been interested in his blood type. Honda soon forgets the name of the woman who took her own life, but is haunted by the visions of the women he has harmed while simultaneously rejecting the labels placed on him as a pervert or a predator and believing that his child’s death is punishment for his “abnormal sexuality” as some may brand it. 

This sense of guilt is also reflected in his worry that he is a “spreader of death”, as if though he did not kill them directly he were the carrier of a disease or else some kind of grim reaper beckoning these women towards their demise though he evidently thinks little of them outside of their status as trophies and does not stop to consider the consequences of his actions on others. Above his bed in his city hideout (officially he lives in a hotel) there is a picture of a fox hunt making plain that his satisfaction lies in the chase rather than its conclusion yet otherwise his motives are rather banal. He cannot leave his wife because he married into her prominent family and his social standing depends on his connection to them, likewise he decides against alerting the police or the building’s caretaker on discovering one of the women’s bodies because his reputation would be ruined if were to become involved in a murder and his secret life exposed. Ironically his salvation comes precisely because of this social standing when his wealthy father-in-law hires Hatanaka to handle his appeal and save him from the death penalty. 

Hatanaka had resigned from a previous position in opposition to the system, disappointed on meeting the lawyer who defended Honda at trial and realising they did not attempt to mount a defence nor investigate his case simply try to mitigate it in the hope of working it down to a custodial sentence. He instructs his naive young assistant who wonders if Honda is the sort of man they should be saving that she should approach every case on its merits as if the defendant is innocent without bringing in external moral judgements on his character. As he tells him, Honda may be legally vindicated but his moral judgement would depend on how he lives his life from then on later offering him a kind of absolution in telling him that one of his conquests, who does not want to be identified, gave birth to a son who is healthy and happy signalling that his is not an original sin and he does not bear that kind of responsibility for the death of his child. Veering towards the avant-garde Nakahira makes frequent use of superimposition and dissolves to reflect Honda’s fracturing mental state along with the persistence of his guilt while shifting into the purely documentarian in his lengthy explanation of forensic techniques and the science behind blood types but always returns to the Hitchcockian interplay of sex, death, and remorse which is true source of Honda’s trial. 


DVD remaster trailer (no subtitles)

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.


Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

youth of the beast posterSeijun Suzuki had been directing for seven years and had made almost 20 films by the time he got to 1963’s Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Yaju no Seishun). Despite his fairly well established career as a director, Youth of the Beast is often though to be Suzuki’s breakthrough – the first of many films displaying a recognisable style that would continue at least until the end of his days at Nikkatsu when that same style got him fired. Building on the frenetic, cartoonish noir of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Suzuki once again casts Jo Shishido in the the lead only this time as an even more ambiguous figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war between two rival hoodlums.

Suzuki opens in black and white as the bodies of a man and a woman are discovered by a small team of policemen. Finding a note from the deceased female which states that she settled on taking her own life because she loved her man and thought death was the only way to keep him, the police assume it’s an ordinary double suicide or perhaps murder/suicide but either way not worthy of much more attention, though discovering a policeman’s warrant card on the nightstand does give them pause for thought.

Meanwhile, across town, cool as ice petty thug Jo Mizuno (Jo Shishido) is making trouble at a hostess bar but when he’s taken to see the boss, it transpires he was really just making an audition. The Nomoto gang take him in, but Mizuno uses his new found gang member status to make another deal with a rival organisation, the Sanko gang, to inform on all the goings on at Nomoto. So, what is Mizuno really up to?

As might be expected, that all goes back to the first scene of crime and some suicides that weren’t really suicides. Mizuno had a connection with the deceased cop, Takeshita (Ichiro Kijima), and feels he owes him something. For that reason he’s poking around in the local gang scene which is, ordinarily, not the sort of world straight laced policeman Takeshita operated in which makes his death next to a supposed office worker also thought to be a high class call girl all the stranger.

Like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast takes place in a thoroughly noirish world as Mizuno sinks ever deeper into the underbelly trying to find out what exactly happened to Takeshita. Also like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast is based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu – a pioneer of Japanese hardboiled whose work provided fertile ground for many ‘70s action classics such as The Beast Must Die and Resurrection of the Golden Wolf, but Suzuki’s ideas of noir owe a considerable debt to the gangster movies of the ‘30s rather than the moody crime dramas of twenty years later.

Jo Shishido’s Mizuno is a fairly typical ‘40s conflicted investigator, well aware of his own flaws and those of the world he lives in but determined to find the truth and set things right. The bad guys are a collection of eccentrics who have more in common with tommy gun toting prohibition defiers than real life yakuza and behave like cartoon villains, throwing sticks of dynamite into moving cars and driving off in hilarious laughter. Top guy Nomoto (Akiji Kobayashi) wears nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an irritated accountant and carries round a fluffy cat he likes to wipe his knives on while his brother Hideo (Tamio Kawaji), the fixer, is a gay guy with a razor fetish who likes to carve up anyone who says mean stuff about his mum. The Sanko gang, by contrast, operate out of a Nikkatsu cinema with a series of Japanese and American films playing on the large screen behind their office.

The narrative in play may be generic (at least in retrospect) but Suzuki does his best to disrupt it as Mizuno plays the two sides against each other and is often left hiding in corners to see which side he’s going to have to pretend to be on get out of this one alive. Experimenting with colour as well as with form, Suzuki progresses from the madcap world of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! to something weightier but maintains his essentially ironic world view for an absurd journey into the mild gloom of the nicer end of the Tokyo gangland scene.


Original trailer (no 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.


 

Danger Pays (危いことなら銭になる, Ko Nakahira, 1962)

Danger PaysWhere there’s danger, there’s money! Or, maybe just danger, who knows but whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t lack for excitement. Ko Nakahira is best known for his first feature, Crazed Fruit, the youthful romantic drama ending in speed boat murder which ushered in the Sun Tribe era. Though he later tried to make a return to more artistic efforts, it’s Nakahira’s freewheeling Nikkatsu crime movies that have continued to capture the hearts of audience members. Danger Pays (AKA Danger Paws, 危いことなら銭になる, Yabai Koto Nara Zeni ni Naru) is among the best of them with its cartoon-like, absurd crime caper world filled with bumbling crooks and ridiculous setups.

The central plot gets going when a truck carrying watermarked paper destined for the mint is hijacked with force by armed thugs. They need a master forger though so they set out to recruit one of the best counterfeiters currently working on his way back from a business trip to Hong Kong. However, three petty crooks have also gotten wind of the scam and are trying to head off their rivals by kidnapping the old grandpa first.

The three guys are “Glass Hearted Joe” – a purple suited dandy with an aversion to the sound of scraping glass, Slide Rule Tetsu who walks with a cane and is a whizz with the abacus, and Dump-Truck Ken who’s a geeky sort of guy who also owns a dumper truck. Sakamoto, the forger, eludes their grasp when the better equipped professionals turn up, but none of them is willing to give up on the prize. A little later, Joe teams up with a female ally – Tomoko, who is keen martial artist and smarter than the other three put together. Eventually the four end up becoming an accidental team though it remains to be seen if they can really turn this increasingly desperate situation to their advantage.

Danger Pays is in no way “serious” though this is far from a criticism. Armed with a killer script filled with amazing one liners which are performed with excellent comic timing by the A-list cast, Danger Pays is the kind of effortlessly cool, often hilarious crime caper which is near impossible to pull-off but absolutely sublime when it works – which Danger Pays most definitely does. Though there is a large amount of death and bloodiness in the final third, the atmosphere remains cartoonish as our intrepid team of four simply step over the bodies to go claim their prize with only one of them left feeling a little queasy.

Nakahira maintains the high octane, almost breathless pace right through to the end. The finale kicks in with our heroes trying to escape from a locked room which is about to be filled with gas only to be trapped like rats in an elevator shaft where they engage in an improbable shootout whilst bodies rain down on them from above bathed in the red emergency light of the escape vaults. This is a hardboiled world but one cycled through cigar munching wise guys and tommy guns, it’s all fun and games until you’re trapped in a lift knee deep in corpses while blood drips from a couple more dead guys on the ceiling.

Ridiculous slapstick humour and broad comedy are the cornerstones of Danger Pays though it also makes its central crime conceit work on its own only to overturn it with a final revelation even as the credits roll. Excellently played by its four leads, this comic tale of “victimless crime” in the improbably colourful underworld of ‘60s Tokyo is one which is filled with absurd humour, cartoon stunts, and ridiculous characters but proves absolutely irresistible! If only modern day crime capers were this much fun.


Danger Pays is the second of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.