Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir

From I Am Waiting -- image courtesy of Criterion Collection

These five films from the golden-era of the legendary Nikkatsu studio shows off the never-ending ways Japanese filmmakers were able to combine the best elements of pulp and epic Japanese storytelling.

I Am Waiting / Rusty Knife / Take Aim at the Police Van /Cruel Gun Story / A Colt is My Passport

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara, Toshio Masuda, Seijun Suzuki, Takashi Nomura
Cast: Yujiro Ishihara, Joe Shishido, Mie Kitahara, Jerry Fujio, Akira Kobayashi
Distributor: Criterion
Release Date: 2009-08-25

Oh, the Criterion Collection. In a world where every conceivable artifact of every type of media is readily available thanks to cheaper production methods and the 'long-tail' effect of Internet-based retail and distribution, and where any arm-chair critic can find a ready audience thanks to the explosion of online venues (*ahem* Thank you!), the good folks at Criterion play a valuable role, carefully curating a collection of films of quality and cultural value that have provided a benchmark of success that other list-makers and genre buffs can only aspire to. Eschewing the algorithm-generated "recommended viewing" lists and the user-generated popularity indexes that have become hallmarks of the Netflix era, the Criterion Collection has continued to thrive by doggedly combing cinema's worldwide canon in order to bring their customers the best and most important releases ever committed to film.

In 2007, Criterion launched their Eclipse line of boxed-DVD-sets, with the goal of providing important but hard-to-find releases to audiences at the lowest possible price. Until recently, each box-set had focused on a single director, or even a single period in a single director's career, such as the postwar work of Akira Kurosawa or the history films of Roberto Rossellini. But with their 17th series, Nikkatsu Noir, Criterion instead chose to select five works from a specific movie studio during one of their most culturally relevant periods of output.

These films, released over the decade that began with the 1957 premiere of I Am Waiting, were all produced by Nikkatsu Corporation, the oldest movie studio in Japan. The era this collection looks at covers Nikkatsu's reemergence after World War II, which began when it started shooting pictures again in 1954. The studio initially churned out the yakuza stories and samurai epics that had become the norm in Japanese cinema by that point, but soon adapted their style, thanks to the converging factors of a new generation of movie-going Japanese youths and the increasing popularity of dynamic new styles of American and European movie-making. By taking these new influences and fusing them with the tropes of classic Japanese cinema, Nikkatsu created a new, wildly prolific and successful style all their own, which Criterion dubs "Nikkatsu Noir".

That is not to say that these hard-boiled Nikkatsu flicks are easily pinned down to any one set of rules. From the slow-building, 'closure-triumphs revenge' plot line of Rusty Knife to the bat-shit, blood-soaked acrobatics of Cruel Gun Story, the morals and themes of these movies are all over the map. But they share a common set of elements that come from Japan's past, and new ideas seeping in from the outside world. By middle of the 20th century,though, the exchange between Western and Japanese styles of storytelling had been going on for years (indeed, Akira Kurosawa, Japan's most famous Western-influenced auteur, got his start at Nikkatsu), and to be worthy of an Eclipse Series collection, the noirs presented here have to offer something more than just archetypal gunmen and gumshoes who happen to speak Japanese.

And they do! Because the thing about these films is they were not just a simple fusion of old Japanese fables and Western flash. They were a response, both organic and calculated, to a new, postwar Japan, and a new, and young, generation of film-fans who were looking for something different when they plunked down their yen-notes at the local theater. Thus these movies are suffused with settings and conflicts that both reflect and appeal to the Japan in which they were made.

From Rusty Knife -- image courtesy of Criterion Collection

World War II and Japans subsequent occupation cast a long shadow over these stories, whether shown by the slaughter of the protagonist's parents by vengeful Chinese citizens in Cruel Gun Story or the constant allusions to the indirect support the occupying American G.I.'s give Japan's criminal underworld, such as the their patronage of the brothels and hostess bars most of the characters work in or frequent, or the black-market sales of US produced arms to yakuza gunmen. The landscape these characters live in and travel through also exist only because of the war, gun-battles taking place most often in bombed-out parts of Japanese cities or now-abandoned military bases.

Of course, by the time the first of these films was released, the war had been wrapped up for well over a decade. But Japan's society and economy were still reforming, and many of the conflicts central to the Nikkatsu plot lines come from the confusion of this new era. Rusty Knife takes place in a newly created industrial city, where organized criminals and business tycoons work hand in hand to dominate the lives of the city's inhabitants, while Take Aim at the Police Van has the growing South East Asian sex trade, patronized and supplied by post-war Japan, take a central role in it's complicated plot line. As in so many examples of pulp storytelling, the Nikkatsu films feature double-cross after double-cross, but in these movies this happens most often because of the unclear alliances that exist in a new world that the films' characters do not yet fully understand.

The first two films in the series follow similar plots that deal with a character's confusion over the source of his troubles. The star of both features is Yujiro Ishihara, a soon-to-be-heartthrob who tended to play a small-time criminal with a troubled past and a heart of gold. They also both feature Mie Kitahara, who would go on to star in many more movies with Ishihara, and eventually become his real-life wife.

In the first, I Am Waiting Ishihara is a young bar-owner who meets a mysterious woman-on-the-run, played by Kitahara, and invites her to stay with him while she figures out her troubles. Kitahara, it turns out, thinks she may have killed an overly-amorous thug at the bar she sings at. But Kitahara has problems of his own, as he is haunted by the accidental-murder that ended his glittering boxing career years before, and is also starting to wonder what has happened to his brother, whom he is supposed to join to start a new life in Brazil (a common dream destination for the escape-minded gangsters in these films).

In the second, Rusty Knife Ishihara is, again, a young bar-owner with a troubled past. He was once a small-time thug who went clean after spending time in jail for taking revenge on the man he believed raped his girlfriend and prompted her suicide. Unfortunately, he and his side-kick, played by another future heart-throb, Akira Kobayashi, are the only witnesses to a murder the local yakuza heavies want the police to believe was a suicide. And so Ishihara is pulled out of his humble-but-honest life by the conflicting pulls of the criminals who want to silence him, and the intrepid young woman (Kitahara) who wants him to help her break their community's silence about the criminal problem.

Criterion's introduction to I Am Waiting points out that the opening scene of that film, where Ishihara meets Kitahara on the Yokahama docks, brings to mind "Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo." But despite their troubled protagonists and murky villains, neither of these first two films have much in common with Hitchcock's thriller. While very bad things have happened to Ishihara and Kitahara's various characters in the past, things just never reach a higher level of despair. Instead, the characters learn that bringing their enemies to legal justice is more important than cold-blooded revenge, and it is implied that they are able to successfully move on with their lives after all the fuss is over. The lesson is not that you can't escape your past, it's just that if you want to you'll have to get in at least one fist-fight with a smarmy mob boss first.

While the two Ishihara starring films are similar, the later Rusty Knife is perhaps the superior member of the pair. This is partially because of the way a major story element common to both movies -- that all of the crimes committed against the hero can be attributed to one enemy -- comes across as an overly-convenient plot device in I Am Waiting, but in Rusty Knife is an important part of the film's overall theme. Aside from Ishihara, Rusty Knife's most important character is the city it takes place in, a (fictional) fast-growing industrial hothouse where businessmen and yakuza are not as distinguishable as they seem to be at first glance. In I Am Waiting, the fact that the guy responsible for Kitahara's problems and for the disappearance of Ishihara's brother is one person, the local mob boss, makes everything easier for our heroes, as that means they just have to take him down and then move on.

But in Rusty Knife, the revelation that a respected businessman has as much to do with the rape of Ishihara's girlfriend and the murder he witnessed as it does with the local gangsters makes Ishihara's quest for justice that much more complicated, and it also shatters the illusions held by Kitahara's character, who until that point honestly believes that she and her wealthy peers are a force for good in the city, standing in stark contrast to the criminal ruffians who can be blamed for any pain and suffering.

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