Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse (Criterion) Series 17

Nikkatsu Noir
The latest addition to Criterion’s budget-priced and barebones Eclipse line-up is this boxed set of five films from a cycle of tough-minded crime dramas that enjoyed popularity in post-WWII Japan. Little-seen in the U.S., this group of films as a whole probably benefits from Japanese settings and attitudes that bring a sense of freshness, even exoticism, to straightforward genre exercises. But the films are entertaining and engrossing on their own terms, and, more than that, they paint an interesting picture of a culture in a generational transition and, perhaps, a bit of an identity crisis — they’re clearly derivative of American film noir and French crime films of the period. And the best ones in the set — for my money, Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van and Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport (pictured at top) — hold their own against any crime film of the period. Together, they provide a sketch, in necessarily broad strokes, of a key period in the development of the popular Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu Noir
is a terrific collection.

I Am Waiting (Kurahara, 1957)

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The set kicks off with Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I Am Waiting, full of borrowed noir iconography from the very first shots: chiaroscuro lighting; a hard-luck diner and a train-track setting; a man striding off into the dark wearing a trenchcoat and a mournful whistle; the presence in the frame of a single lit streetlamp symbolizing his solitude. The setting is the sprawling port city of Yokohama, the man is Joji Shimaki, and the film wastes no time introducing him to the lovely Saeko, a rainswept figure (and crackerjack opera singer!) who may suffer from a similar lonesomeness. As critic Chuck Stephens explains in his very helpful liner notes, the man and woman are played by Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara, a hugely popular pairing who starred together in the classic, youth-culture-oriented Crazed Fruit (available as a standalone Criterion DVD release) and dozens more films over the course of just a few years. Here, Ishihara is a former prizefighter who swore off the gloves after accidentally killing a man, and it seems Kitahara may be the woman who pulls him back into violence. Instead, the key to his psyche is the fate of his brother, who was last seen with a ticket to Brazil, where he was to purchase a parcel of land for the two of them to live on, away from the dehumanizing influence of Yokohama and its crime culture. But as he starts to feel betrayed by his absent sibling, who has not been in contact and may never have left the country in the first place, a terrible anger begins to dominate his character. “I need to take it out on somebody with my own bare hands,” he declares. As Saeko begins hoping that the two of them may save each other from loneliness, Shimaki refuses to take the bait, claiming to want to live only with “cattle and horses, who make much better companions than humans.” Before long, Saeko’s gangster bosses arrive to take her back to the nightclub where she’s kept as a hostess. Eventually, their stories fully intertwine, and the film climaxes in a helpless explosion of violence. As the only one of these five films shot in the old-school Academy ratio, this is the closest visual equivalent to classic Hollywood noir, with cinematographer Kurataro Takamura bringing on the low-key lighting and director Kurahara exhibiting a great sense for using the building blocks of location to form dynamic, angular compositions, the shapes of the Yokohama environments slashing across the frame behind our unhappy heroes. Criterion’s DVD transfer is solid but unexceptional — par for Eclipse titles, which don’t undergo the extensive digital touch-ups lavished on full-fledged Criterion releases. The “windowboxing” (that is, the picture is surrounded by small black bars on all sides) is fairly significant on this transfer. That may be good news for viewers with CRTs, which almost always clip the edges of the film image, but it tends to irk folks with nice HDTV screens since it reduces the effective resolution of the picture slightly.Grade: B

Rusty Knife (Masuda, 1958)

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With director Toshio Masuda’s widescreen frame comes a somewhat more modern visual feel, as Ishihara and Kitahara return in another crime drama about a guy with too much past and not enough future. Again, Ishihara plays a former petty thug who was goaded into murder by violence — this time, he stabbed the man he believed responsible for the rape, and subsequent suicide, of his girlfriend Yuki. But the thug, Tachibana, did his time and now he’s gone straight. But life is complicated. As a gangster he was witness to a politician’s murder that’s again become a hot issue, and both the yakuza responsible and the police investigating are looking for his cooperation. He meets Keiko Nishida (Kitahara), the dead politician’s daughter, a journalist digging through the criminals’ business who’s nursing a conspiracy theory in her investigation of Yuki’s death. At the same time, his pal from the old days, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), has been stupidly accepting hush money from the gangsters, which puts him again in their thrall. “Life is short. I want mine to be fun and exciting,” Terada tells him before mocking Tachibana’s extended celibacy. Tachibana can’t save Terada from his own indiscretions, but he stays on the trail, which eventually leads him step by step up the underworld’s ladder toward the shadowy mob boss who was ultimately responsible for Yuki’s death. It’s pretty convoluted, and doesn’t really pay off, but it’s sufficiently gloomy, moody stuff for a dark evening’s diversion. Rusty Knife is again full of shadowy, low-key lighting, but the influence of American films noirs feels a step or two removed, especially compared to the more by-the-book expressionist stylings of I Am Waiting. The widescreen frame makes a difference, especially in many moody interior shots, and with its reduced tendency to heighten the isolation of any single character in the picture. The DVD transfer is probably as good as can be expected, but with perhaps a hint of edge enhancement to artifically sharpen up the picture. Some scenes have badly overexposed highlights, especially the one that takes place in a hair salon with big, blasted-out, street-facing windows, where Tachibana and Nishida talk to a stylist who remembers what happened to Yuki. I’m assuming that’s an artifact of the source — perhaps a dupe print rather than anything close to lab-quality materials — rather than an in-camera mistake or a bad telecine decision, but there are no notes at all on the provenance of the materials used. Grade: B-

Take Aim at the Police Van (Suzuki, 1960)

Take Aim at the Police Van
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I wasn’t expecting this early Suzuki joint to be my favorite film in the box, though I really enjoyed the director’s later Tokyo Drifter and especially Branded to Kill, which were introduced to a larger cult audience when Criterion gave them a laserdisc debut in the mid-1990s. But taking in Take Aim at the Police Van served as a strong reminder that I really need to make time for the rest of the Suzuki discs taking up space on my shelves. The film’s title comes to life in an action scene announced, pre-credits, by a series of signposts seen through the crosshairs of a rifle scope. They read, in sequence: MANY ACCIDENTS. HAVE OCCURRED. IN THIS AREA. CAUTION! The effect, especially with the DVD’s stark, all-caps subtitles appearing on screen, reminded me of the kind of in-your-face title cards employed by Bruce Conner for “A Movie” and, later, by Godard. A police bus zips down a highway at night; the prisoner Goro draws “AKI” in one of the windows as the van passes a beautiful woman standing at the side of the road. A trick is sent rolling down a hillside. It smashes into the bus, and snipers open fire, killing two of the convicts. The guard on board the bus, Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima), is suspended for six months. His vacation consists of a private investigation into the matter, which leads him quickly to a so-called “spa hotel” where one of the strippers who works the guest rooms runs screaming into his arms as another, half-naked and suffering a terminal arrow wound, collapses, writhing, to the floor. The specifics of Tamon’s investigation aren’t as significant as the overall mood of the piece, which veers from that brand of sexually charged violence (the story eventually centers on rival “agencies” that traffic in young women) to much more playful stuff, like Tamon’s attempts to speak with Shoko, a teenager who races away from the much older man, first by ducking into a cemetery and later by running through crowded city streets as Glenn Miller-style swing music blasts from a jukebox. Or his encounter with the beautiful Yuko, a sly, sharpshooting archer who may or may not be responsible for the evil goings-on. The action climax, which features restlessly moving trains and camera, is terrifically chilly, the shape of the boxcars and locomotives echoing the dimensions of the widescreen frame and emphasizing the empty blackness of the night. It’s true that this is more an exercise in style than in character or story, and it does get a bit silly — a set piece involving prisoners in a tanker truck and a trail of burning gasoline is as unlikely a scenario as you’ll find in this type of movie — but sometimes style can get you an awfully long way. The DVD transfer is pretty excellent, holding Suzuki’s relentless blacks as well as the picture’s high-contrast highlights, and revealing the rich day-for-night greys of cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine’s monochrome ‘scope palette. It looks great, and, at just 79 minutes, it’s the weirdest, most lurid, most shamelessly entertaining film in the set. Grade: B+

Cruel Gun Story (Furukawa, 1964)

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Veering away from Suzuki’s almost breezy (!) sex-and-violence agenda, this incredibly bleak thriller follows a classic crime-film template, as ex-convict Togawa (big-cheeked action star Joe Shishido) assembles a motley crew of outlaws for a “one-off gig” knocking over an armored car carrying horseracing receipts in a bid to raise money for his crippled sister. Of course, it’s never that easy. The early scenes showing how the perpetually sunglassed Togawa vets his potential partners are highly amusing, and director Takumi Furukawa kicks up the tension by allowing the whole heist to play out in an idealized version on screen as Togawa plans the action, making it abundantly clear that something will go badly wrong when the operation goes down for real. Turns out the armored-car guards are a little tougher to kill than anticipated; the gang has to load the car into a big truck and hole up in a dark garage hidden away in a grim little town that was trashed and abandoned by hard-partying American soldiers after the war. (“This is how they left the place,” Togawa muses disgustedly; several inserts pointedly depict military jets zooming overhead.) When Togawa leaves the rest of his boys behind to discuss the deal with his boss, things really go south, with lots of explosive gunfire leading the way to an aggressively downbeat climax. “I have nothing left in me,” Togawa cries at one point. No one leaves happy. In his liner notes, Chuck Stephens muses on the rise of unlikely matinee idol Joe Shishido, who was appearing in the most tough-minded crime films coming out of the Nikkatsu movie factory, and it’s true that this role is a showcase for mixing steely, macho resolve with a more complex, haunted expressivity. The photography again leans toward inky blacks and dark exteriors, which are punctuated and illuminated by explosions of gunfire. The outright expressionist look is toned down, though the chiaroscuro light-and-shadow stylings remain in clear evidence. Like the previous disc, this DVD’s transfer is really on target: contrast is good, shadow detail has been maintained. Grade: B

A Colt is My Passport (Nomura, 1967)

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The Nikkatsu Noir box finishes on a high note with a second Joe Shishido picture, this one a well-styled widescreen action movie about a highly skilled, if idiosyncratic, assassin who’s rewarded for his expertise in knocking off a yakuza boss by, natch, a double-cross. Instead of the agreed-upon berth on a boat out of the country, he ends up holed up in a waterfront hotel of questionable repute, hoping his gangster bosses arrange his safe passage before their leaderless archenemies track him down. But when the rival gangs reach a merger agreement, contingent on the elimination of the hired gun, our Joe is well and truly screwed. “I’m not running away,” he declares at one point. “I’m surviving.” There’s a grouchy old lady, a pretty girl, and a loyal sidekick, as well as a Morricone-derived tough-guy score that explicitly recalls the then-thriving spaghetti western, to go along with Shishido’s likely Eastwood-influenced bad-ass. Probably the most engrossing, tightly constructed film in the box (what I mean to say might be that the film mimics the singlemindedness of its protagonist) it really gives the Suzuki film a run for its money — especially in its audaciously staged action climax, which sees Shishido making a date with destiny as he agrees to meet his would-be killers at a local landfill for a 7 a.m. showdown. (It’s no Civil War-era graveyard, but it’ll do.) The last 15 minutes or so show the gangsters delightedly choosing weapons for the confrontation, as well as Joe’s calm preparation for the coming assault. Finally, there’s a series of three short tracking shots that must constitute one of the most bracing, purely kinetic moments in all action cinema — it’s tempting to describe what happens, but I’d rather leave it as a surprise. You’ll know it when you see it. The style here is less classic noir, more straightforward hard-boiled action, so the action is really what counts. It’s good. Grade: B+

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