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By Charles Ramírez Berg
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By Richard Porton
Grey Gardens: Staunch Characters
By Hilton Als
Full-size sidewalks aren’t very common in outer Tokyo, particularly in the many small residential neighborhoods that surround the city for miles. Likely a holdover from when there weren’t as many cars around and people walked in the roads alongside carts and horses, this fact can sometimes prove a problem nowadays, as you’re forced to share narrow streets with buses, taxis, and private automobiles. The problem is amplified at night, and particularly when you’re drunk and stumbling around with someone even drunker than you. This was the situation I found myself in one evening at the beginning of September, as I did my best not only to remain standing but to help prevent legendary Japanese crime and action movie star Joe Shishido from being struck down by a city bus, as we stumbled happily from a small restaurant to an even smaller pub in a tiny suburban neighborhood of Tokyo. But let me back up a little bit . . .
This wasn’t the first time I’d met, or been drinking with, Shishido. Our paths had crossed twice before, first in the spring of 2005, at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, in northern Italy. Shishido was a special guest there—along with acclaimed director Toshio Masuda—as part of the festival’s retrospective of Nikkatsu action films from the late 1950s and 1960s. Tokyo-based film critic Mark Schilling introduced me to Shishido, and I did the requisite photo op, but that’s where it all ended. Then in late 2007, as I was in the midst of organizing, with Schilling, a smaller version of the Nikkatsu action retro to tour the U.S. and Canada, we tried our best to bring Joe to New York as a guest for a Japan Society screening of Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast (1962), directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. Criterion and Janus Films had even agreed to cover some of his travel costs, but the remainder of the budget couldn’t be covered and the plans didn’t come to fruition. While we were still trying to plan the event, we were able to meet Joe at a restaurant in Roppongi the morning of my flight home. Schilling and I were accompanied by Nikkatsu’s Hideo Iwamoto, and fully expected the meeting to be over coffee, but we found Joe already well into his third or fourth beer of the day. Joe pointed at all of us around the table and growled (in English), “Drink? Who drinks? Beer?” Schilling politely declined, and Iwamoto blanched, no doubt because he was on company time at the moment, not to mention it was only about ten in the morning. Joe’s manager (and son) also chose the nonalcoholic route, leaving me in the not-unhappy position of feeling obliged to slam my palm down on the table and exclaim, “Yes! Yes, I will drink with you, Joe. Bring me a beer.” When Ace no Joe, the Dirty Joker, says drink, you drink.
So with this bit of history behind us, we were able to dispense with formalities when we met again in early September, immediately decamping to a small tonkatsu-ya in Joe’s western Tokyo neighborhood of Sengawa, where he has lived for forty-plus years. At the tonkatsu restaurant—where the chef and his wife knew Joe very well—we ordered beers (of course), and Joe chose some dishes for us. Then came the real reason for our meeting: my presentation to him of Criterion’s brand-new Eclipse box set Nikkatsu Noir, which includes three of his films (two starring roles, one supporting), which I’d carried to Tokyo with me from New York to hand to him in person. I’d helped choose the titles for the collection with Criterion and Nikkatsu staff, and I was really looking forward to presenting him with the set, which prominently features a close-up of his eyes on the cover. Joe knew this was coming—we’d told him about it when we made the telephone arrangements for our meeting—but his eyes still lit up at his first glimpse of the black-and-pink packaging.
He immediately unwrapped it and started going through the discs, poring over the cover and interior photos, and the stories began: about his favorite (and least favorite) actresses to work with; about the legendary Yujiro Ishihara, Joe’s senior at Nikkatsu, and Tetsuya Watari (star of Like a Shooting Star, Joe’s junior at Nikkatsu, and now in charge of Ishihara’s still-sizable management company); about how some of his old friends were doing; and about guns. Lots of talk about guns. Joe likes shooting, firearms, and western stuff, and I guess since I was an American, it seemed to him like a natural topic. One of my favorite stories was of how Joe smuggled two pistols from Mexico to Japan in the midsixties after the shooting of an almost-impossible-to-believe movie called Mexico Wanderer,which cast Joe as a Mexican bandit. It took the Nikkatsu crew something like four days to make the trip from Tokyo—by way of Guam, Los Angeles, Texas, and Mexico City—to the small town where the film was shot. A gun nut for most of his life, and a big fan of American gangster movies and westerns of the thirties and forties, Joe decided to bring home a couple of souvenirs, firearms being absolutely impossible to buy privately in Japan then, as now. So under the belt of his pants a pair of pistols went, covered by layers of clothing and coats. But what Joe didn’t count on was the long journey back and the temperature inside some of the smaller propeller planes they used: he sat for several days, uncomfortable and with sweat running down his face, his fellow travelers wondering why he was so bundled up, but he made it back to Tokyo without the guns being discovered, and probably still owns them to this day.
At the restaurant in Sengawa, we chatted about things like this, and Joe showed off his new box set to the restaurant’s owners, who reminisced with him and teased him about how handsome he was back in the old days. My good friend Yoshiki Hayashi, a book editor in Tokyo and a major classic genre film fan, had come along, bringing original posters for many of Joe’s films to show him, including A Colt Is My Passport, Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Branded to Kill, Youth of the Beast, Cruel Gun Story, and Mexico Wanderer. It was truly a pleasure to help Joe stroll for a while along memory lane, considering that most of the films in which he starred haven’t come to DVD in Japan yet, including Colt and Cruel Gun, which made their worldwide DVD debuts with the new Criterion box set.
After quite a bit of food and a lot more beer, we left the tonkatsu-ya and took that walk through sidewalkless Sengawa to another favorite place of Joe’s, a tiny little izakaya (a kind of food and drink pub) called Denden. Apparently, Joe’s a nightly visitor there and has contributed some memorabilia and photos to the elderly owners, who have them displayed on their walls. Once again there was the show-and-tell with the box set and posters, and once again much beer was poured. My memories of the stories from this particular stop are fuzzier than the earlier ones, however, and Joe made me promise to go back there with him next time I’m in Tokyo. You can believe me when I say that I’m looking forward to it immensely, and hoping to carry another DVD box set of his movies along with me again.