From A Colt is My Passport—image courtesy of Criterion Collection
An Arrow in the Taiyozoku
These films were aimed at the taiyozoku, Japan’s then emerging youth population, who, like teenagers all over the Western world, were embracing James Dean and rock ‘n roll with equal gusto. So while many of these films featured pretty young idols, they still did everything they could to be “cool” enough to win the hearts of the rebellious young crowd that was starting to control Japan’s box office. The directors took plenty of risks, in terms of shooting style, that set these feature apart from earlier Nikkatsu work. Bold action scenes, like a high-speed battle between two dump trucks or a couple’s meandering scooter ride through the city streets, up the stakes on these films, while artsy shots of the metropolitan landscapes surrounding the characters punctuate the ongoing stories.
The people green-lighting projects at Nikkatsu decided to try something different with 1960’s Take Aim at the Police Van This film, which took the zany imagery of earlier Nikkatsu features and pushed them even further, also eschews the young superstars that dominated the genre and instead casts a 48-year old Michitaro Mizushima as its central figure. Mizushima plays a prison-guard, who decides to make use of the paid time-off he is given after the titular police van he was guarding prisoners on is ambushed to help figure out why the attack was carried out. His quest leads him through a confusing nest of characters, ranging from a bumbling crook Mizushima was friendly to during a jail-time stint, to a ring of gangsters who are abducting women for exportation to brothels overseas. He also meets a woman who runs a semi-legal escort service, and who is at once a potential villain and a potential love interest.
The plot is full of the usual twists and double-crosses of the other Nikkatsu features, and, in classic noir fashion, most of the characters meet—at best—bittersweet endings. Only Mizushima, the dogged investigator, is able to gain some satisfaction from the case, as he is able to at least solve the mystery that he has worked so hard to untangle. But stylistically, Take Aim at the Police Van is way more out there than the earlier releases. For all their melodramatic moments and over-the-top feuds, the Ishihara-starring films in this set tried to ground the action in something resembling reality. Ishihara’s fight-scenes with his enemies, for example, were not dazzling displays of martial-art prowess, but painful, drawn-out slugfests that left both Ishihara and his opponents battered and panting for breath.
Mizushima, on the other hand, is a gunslinger, who dispatches his numerically superior foes with detatched ease. While violent death was certainly a theme in the earlier films, actual onscreen killings were not so frequent, and each murder was treated as an important, life-changing event for the characters. In Take Aim at the Police Van the rising body count of nameless gangsters is just another aspect of Mizushima’s gruelling quest for the truth. And, in true James Bond (or Austin Powers) style, attempts by Mizushima’s enemies to take his life often involve unnecessarily elaborate set-pieces, which are thankfully slow enough to be escapable and fun enough to thrill the audience.
From Cruel Gun Storyt—image courtesy of Criterion Collection
This focus on mind-boggling fight scenes and high death-tolls reaches its logical conclusion in the last two movies in the set. Cruel Gun Story and A Colt is My Passport Both star Joe Shishido, a bit player for Nikkatsu who only ascended to leading man status after he got radical facial surgery to give him a more distinct appearance. It may be hard for a modern audience to understand why an actor physically altering his face so that his cheeks resemble those of a chipmunk would suddenly make him a big star, but in Shishido’s case it worked. He is known internationally for the cult classic Branded to Kill, and the characters he portrays in the two movies presented in the Eclipse Series 17 set aren’t too different from the hard-boiled hit-man he played in that film, although these later movies don’t quite repeat Branded to Kill‘s absurdist glory. However, it is not for lack of trying.
In Cruel Gun Story Shishido plays a hardened thief who is known for his competence and refusal to snitch. He is released early from a long jail sentence after some gangsters pull some strings so they can use him to plan and carry out the robbery of a large fortune from an armored van which carries the profits from a local horse-track to the bank. He has to assemble a team, make a plan of attack, and carry it out successfully so that he can retire from criminal life with enough cash to live comfortably. Initially the film is reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven, as it starts out as a cleverly designed caper movie. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Shishido and company are not the ruffianswith hearts of gold that Frank Sinatra or George Clooney got together for family-friendly good times. Where Clooney used misdirection and sleeping gas to get rid of human obstacles, Shishido uses bullets. His plan calls for the cold-blooded murder of the van’s security guards, whether they choose to resist or not.
This lack of care for human life eventually affects the film’s enjoyability, as the story offers elaborate back-stories for its characters, and then mercilessly kills them off one-by-one. Things go wrong, people try to double-cross Shishido, and the bodies pile up. There may be a message in here somewhere, perhaps about the futility of trusting criminals or of trying to go clean, but it’s hard to care when everybody gets shot or burned to death, regardless of their motives or actions. And, unfortunately, Cruel Gun Story has few of the silly antics that lightened the set’s earlier flicks a little, leaving the viewer with nothing to watch but sad, desperate people struggling to survive in a world which is sinister but far too ridiculous to resemble reality.
A Colt is My Passport, released in 1967, provides a better venue for Shishido’s stock tough-guy character. This time, he plays a renowned hit-man, who once again wants to pull off one last job before he sails off to enjoy the good life. But after performing the hit on the head of a yakuza family that is muscling in on his employer’s territory, he has to hide out in a seedy motel by the docks while he waits for a boat to carry him and his sidekick, played by the distinctly Eurasian Jerry Fujio off to safety. The motel is frequented by a comedic group of truckers and bargemen, most of whom are in love with the resident tragic waitress, who in turn naturally falls for the emotionally distant Shishido.
Unlike Cruel Gun Story, A Colt is My Passport lets the tension build slowly, with Shishido and Fujio spending most of their time waiting by the docks, trying their best not to let their guard down. At first they only have to worry about vengeful members of the slain boss’s gang, but things get more dangerous (of course they do) when their employer decides to make peace with his enemies and help them take out the man who killed their leader.
Despite Shishido’s refusal to trust anyone—including the love-lorn waitress—and his dead-on instincts about his stalker’s plans, he and Fujio become backed further into a corner, and in the end Shishido is forced to use the talent his character is best known for in an epic standoff against several gunmen and a limo that has been converted into a virtual armored tank. The film’s final sequence, carefully and yet daringly shot and executed, is the ultimate payoff for the hour and more the audience has spent watching Shishido desperately try to slink out of sight and leave his violent past behind.
All in all, Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir, is a good deal of fun, and an interesting example of the way pop and pulp influences can converge in different but equally gratifying ways. The plot-lines are often similar, but more often than not enough there are enough unique or inventive elements—whether they be oddly effective images like a murdered escort falling through a screen door with an arrow in her bosom, or Bond-movie-recalling scenes like a tied-up investigator trying to escape an out of control oil tanker before an approaching river of fire blows him up—to make sure things never get boring.
The packaging for each DVD in the set also includes a lovingly-written essay describing the specific film’s background -including that of its director and actors—as well as its cultural relevance and most iconic images. Unfortunately, the collection does not include any special features on the disks themselves. This may be understandable, given that Criterion’s main aim with the Eclipse series is to keep costs down, but it’s a shame that the company that practically invented the audio commentary track couldn’t offer any additional material to further explore the importance of these fascinating movies.
That said, these films don’t need anyone else to speak for them. Genre buffs will gravitate to this collection like Quentin Tarantino to a late-night grind-house feature, but they can be enjoyed by anybody, and hopefully they’ll find an audience amongst people who,as yet, know nothing about this unique, bizarre, and rewarding period in Japanese cinema.