Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir

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 Popmatters.com!), 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.

An Arrow in the Taiyozoku

From A Colt is My Passport — image courtesy of Criterion Collection

An Arrow in the Taiyozoku

Genre buffs will gravitate to this collection like Quentin Tarantino to a late-night grind-house feature.

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.

RATING 8 / 10
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