BluRay/DVD Reviews

NIKKATSU NOIR (Eclipse series 17)

By • Nov 9th, 2009 •

Share This:

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, started to worry around the time of the late 50’s, that American and French crime pictures were drawing audiences away from Japanese movies. This is when they decided to make their own hard-boiled productions.

I AM WAITING (1957)

The first film featured on Eclipse’s NIKKATSU NOIR box-set is the directorial debut of Koreyoshi Kurahara. You may know him from directing the 1983 film ANTARCTICA, about sled dogs in Antarctica, in which two of the dogs went on to win Japanese Academy Awards! (I wouldn’t think to make that up). America recently remade it as a Disney film (live-action) starring Paul Walker. Unfortunately, the dogs didn’t receive as much acclaim.

I AM WAITING stars Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara who also starred together a year before in CRAZED FRUIT which Kurahara assistant directed. (Criterion released this film as well). Joji is an ex-boxer who accidentally killed somebody in a bar fight. He saves an ex-opera singer Reiko, who is being forced to work in a cabaret restaurant against her will by gangsters. Joji has been writing to his brother in Brazil for the past year, awaiting a response, until one day he gets back all of his letters. He soon realizes that the same gangsters might be the reason why his brother never made it to Brazil.

It is rather conventional in its storytelling, but the character development and strong performances make the movie stand out. The camera work and lighting lend themselves to the overall melancholic tone. You can see the French influence in the style and music. I was particularly impressed by how much the camera moved. Very stylized for its time. Although I guessed the turns in plot before they happened, it didn’t take away the enjoyment of watching it unravel. The climactic fight-scene seems to be a common thread among all the films in the collection. This one is very cool, but it only gets crazier as the titles go on.

RUSTY KNIFE (1958)

Guilt, alienation, and loneliness were the main themes in I AM WAITING, and this can also be said about the next film in the collection RUSTY KNIFE. Both were written by Shintaro Ishihara and also star the same two actors, which make it a perfect double bill.

Tachibana (Ishihara) and Terada (Akira Kobayashi) play former hoodlums who have gone straight and now work at a bar. But when the police seek them out to act as witnesses to a murder, their old lives come back to haunt them. RUSTY KNIFE is a much darker film than I AM WAITING, The criminals seem more dangerous, the heroes are flawed with bigger demons, and the overall subject matter is much more provocative. For instance, Tachibana went to jail for stabbing the man who he believed raped his wife, which ultimately led to her suicide. Later he finds out that the man didn’t act alone.

RUSTY KNIFE was the first film by Toshio Masuda, who became one of Japan’s biggest hit-makers. After this we went on to direct 51 more films for the Nikkatsu company making him their top director. He is probably best known in America for his work on TORA! TORA! TORA! in which he collaborated with the late Kinji Fukasaku (YAKUZA PAPERS, BATTLE ROYALE) after Akira Kurosawa was removed from the project. He also made the infamous LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH.

The tone is consistent, the film never drags, and the performances are strong all around. Toward the end, when things heat up, they get really exciting. Most of the film takes place at night or in dark rooms. The few scenes that do take place outside seem overexposed and can be a bit jarring. Regardless, for a debut feature shot in two weeks (you never get the feeling it was rushed), it’s no surprise that this director went on to be successful. Another nice thing about the movie is that it is presented in “NIKKATSU-SCOPE” which is a cool way to say it was shot widescreen.

TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN. (1960)

Very cool title, but a bit misleading. The name refers to the very first scene. A prison truck (not really a police van) is shot up and a convict is murdered. Daijiro (Michitaro Mizushima), the guard on duty, is suspended for negligence. Instead of taking this as vacation time, he decides to track down who is really responsible.

I was looking forward to TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN very much. Besides the awesome title, it is directed by Seijun Suzuki (BRANDED TO KILL, TOKYO DRIFTER). One of the reasons this film proved misleading is because it is less a noir than it is a “whodunit”. It packs enough twists and turns to keep one interested but it moves at a pretty slow pace. (This is not necessarily a flaw. If it was fast moving there wouldn’t be much mystery to it.) But most of all, being used to Suzuki’s later work, I expected more of his trademark style, which he himself said he did not develop until three years later with YOUTH OF THE BEAST. You get hints of it here, but it just isn’t fully developed yet.

Suzuki was later fired by Nikkatsu for making “incomprehensible films”. Most of these can be found on Criterion and are special works of art from one of Japan’s most unique filmmakers.

CRUEL GUN STORY. (1964)

Joe Shishido stars as Togawa, an ex con who immediately after being released from prison jumps right back into criminal life when a mob boss coerces him into robbing an armored car carrying racetrack money. A bunch of criminals are gathered to work together, but as we have come to expect from these stories, some of the men have plans of their own.

Once again we are given the guilt-stricken antihero. His sister was in an accident and lost the use of her legs. By going to prison he feels he had abandoned her. He agrees to the job in an attempt to pay for an operation. Surprisingly this doesn’t weigh the film down with sorrow. Instead, we have a fast moving thriller with double-crosses galore. Shishido has such an interesting looking face that your eyes go directly to him whenever he graces the screen. He started acting in the mid 50’s but only in bit parts (he is in the beginning of RUSTY KNIFE). Afraid he would never land a star role, Shishido actually underwent surgery to puff up his cheeks, giving him his trademark chipmunk face. He later became a Suzuki regular, appearing in six of his films.

This is a dark, tightly paced thriller about greed and betrayal with a very shocking ending.

A COLT IS MY PASSPORT (1967)

This is by far my favorite film in the collection.

Shishido stars again as Shuji Kamimura, a hit man, hired by the Yakuza to kill a rival gang’s boss. He does his job, only to be hunted down by both gangs! With nowhere to run, he and his sidekick find a hideout in a hotel where a lonely waitress cares for him.

The plot sounds pretty basic, but what makes this movie amazing is the melding of popular genres. It is a mash-up of Spaghetti Westerns, Yakuza films, and Film Noir. All these styles and it never once feels messy. What makes it really special is that there is nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. Such a blend of genres would be almost impossible to do now without it being somewhat of a spoof.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Shigeyoshi Mine was one of Japan’s best DP’s. His filmography includes TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN, TOKYO DRIFTER, GATE OF FLESH, THE RED HANDKERCHIEF and CRAZED FRUIT. Pretty impressive. COLT is shot in a beautiful lush B&W and is infused with energy, lovely zooms, and experimentation. It’s just as stylized as a Suzuki film (but distinctively different) and although it drags a bit in the middle it makes up for it by having one of the coolest endings I’ve ever seen! I’m amazed that COLT is so obscure. It has classic written all over it.

Shishido says this is his favorite out of all the films he’s done.

Eclipse is a spin-off of The Criterion Collection, who are the creme de la creme of DVDs. Eclipse is sort of like Criterion Light. The transfers aren’t nearly as impressive and the features are sparse (in this case, none at all). Nevertheless, Bravo to Eclipse for putting out titles that would normally not see the light of day. Each disc is presented in their own thin plastic case with informative liner notes by Asian cinema critic Chuck Stephens. The NIKKATSU NOIR set is a great time capsule of film history and a lot of fun to watch.

Tagged as: , , , ,
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

One Response »

  1. Great reviews. I’m dying to see them! Eclipse looks like a wannabe Criterion.

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)