Eclipse Series 17:Nikkatsu Noir

I Am Waiting: Port of Call

The year: 1957. The city: Yokohama, not far from the piers. The sound of the tide softly lapping against stones in the darkness, cubes of black ice in a tumbler of foam. Night. Rain.

Hiroshi Shimizu’s ever-prowling camera had followed Japanese girls along these harborsides a quarter of a century earlier, watching them walking, watching them talking, years before movies had sound, before Japan had lost the war. As the 1960s began, one of Nagisa Oshima’s ideological slumdogs would deflower his date somewhere nearby, in the blistering sunlight, on a flotilla of rough logs waiting to be milled, her tears, his sneers, in crimson Technicolor so lurid as to defile the nation’s cinema forevermore. But tonight, the pier is quiet, the harbor peaceful, the screen saturated only with squid-ink blacks and pallid, paper-lantern whites. Steamers and tugs wolf whistle in the distance, then slowly the determined footfalls of a bandy-legged, bucktoothed boy-man begin to slice through the mist and chill. From out of the shadows comes Yujiro Ishihara, the handsome, if still baby-faced, king of the taiyozoku (Japanese cinema’s “sun tribe” of dissolute postwar youth)—and now, suddenly, the venerable and recently revitalized Nikkatsu studio’s radiant new matinee supernova—and with him a mission: he’s got a letter to mail.

Not so noir a midnight sortie, perhaps you’re thinking; a bit far afield from the Los Angeles basin or South Street Lower Manhattan, locus classicus of Hollywood film noir, that setting: dockside postwar Japan. But wait: no sooner has Ishihara clanked the letter slot shut than a moonlit minx, a fog-dappled mermaid, a siren from the Yokohama mist, appears before him. She is Mie Kitahara—her long, wavy hair haloed in frizz by the rain; her bangs cut as adorably short as her eyes are filled with hopelessness and pain—and she is loitering, forlornly, perhaps suicidally, at the brackish waterside, a “canary who’s forgotten how to sing.” And before you can stop yourself from envisioning, say, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo—or, for that matter, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung in Days of Being Wild—Ishihara is beside her, walking with her through black and slickened streets, taking her “home” to his dockside dive, Restaurant Reef, where soon their darkest secrets shall be revealed, and their deepest fears realized. Add those smoldering gazes from beneath silenced songbird Kitahara’s bangs to the defensively hunched shoulders of Ishihara’s bruised pugilist, and I Am Waiting—an atmosphere-steeped mood masterwork from the early heyday of what would soon become Nikkatsu’s house brand of mukokuseki (“borderless,” i.e., internationalized) action flicks—casts a spell as shadow thatched as any Hollywood noir.

One of nine Ishihara potboilers, youth flicks, and period comedies that Nikkatsu would rush into release in 1957 (the year the actor turned twenty-three), I Am Waiting was already young Yujiro’s fourteenth feature, in a career that had scarcely begun fifteen months before (waiting, it seems, wasn’t otherwise in Ishihara’s cards). He’d burst on the scene a year earlier, as a standout supporting player in Season of the Sun, the first of Nikkatsu’s epoch-opening taiyozoku films—a genre jazzed into existence by Yujiro’s older brother, Shintaro, a budding literary sensation (and future governor of Tokyo) who’d just won the Akutagawa Award for his tales about the cool, crazy kids who (like the brothers Ishihara) spent their summers on the Shonan coast, chasing girls, swilling drinks, and trashing traditional values. Bumped up to top billing for his follow-up, the ever-grinning, ever-volatile Ishihara, essentially playing himself, was paired with serious actress turned taiyozoku siren Mie Kitahara in director Ko Nakahira’s sun tribe classic Crazed Fruit, a film that inflamed the nation’s moral guardians and brought impressionable adolescents back into movie theaters in droves. The couple would continue as costars in more than two dozen films over the next four years. By the end of 1957, Ishihara’s fifteenth feature—Umetsugu Inoue’s The Guy Who Started a Storm, in which he played a hotheaded drummer—would be the thirdbiggest box-office smash of the year and Yu-chan, as his legion of fans would continue to know and adore him for the next thirty years, would be the brightest new star in Japan.

I Am Waiting’s director, on the other hand—a thirty-year-old, Borneo-born neophyte named Koreyoshi Kurahara, who’d managed to befriend Akira Kurosawa and his mentor, Kajiro Yamamoto, while still a student, and who’d begun as an assistant director at Shochiku in 1952—had continued to bide his time as an assistant since moving over to Nikkatsu in 1954, the year that Japan’s oldest studio (which had ceased filmmaking in 1942 but kept itself flush during wartime as an exhibition-only outfit specializing in Hollywood releases) at last resumed production. Within a few short years of his feature debut with this film, however, Kurahara would become one of the most profitable and stylistically versatile directors on the Nikkatsu lot—though nothing in I Am Waiting’s elegantly pent-up compositions, ultranoir emotions, and contusive selfrecriminations would begin to suggest the bebop freneticism of his lust-maddened 1960 freakout The Warped Ones (a.k.a. Season of Heat), let alone the family-friendly blockbusters about wily foxes and fearless South Pole sled dogs with which he would continue to rule the Japanese box office through the 1980s.

I Am Waiting’s title, of course, refers to neither director Kurahara’s nor his star-crossed matinee idols’ careers, but rather to the restless volatility of Ishihara’s character, Joji Shimaki, a “former welterweight rookie of the year” who now finds the strength in his own fists repugnant and who longs to join his brother in Brazil, a half a planet away from Japan. (It was a plan whose moment had come: Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear had pondered it just two years before.) But first, Joji’s waiting for a letter back from his brother, telling him to come, waiting . . . for a year already, until one day all of Joji’s letters to Brazil come back marked “Addressee Unknown.” Kitahara’s Saeko has been waiting too: waiting for the law, or Nikkatsu regular Hideaki Nitani’s gang boss (himself a former pugilist), from whose employ she’s on the run, to catch up with her for a crime she hasn’t actually committed; and waiting, too, for Joji to wake up and recognize those sparks of fire in her eyes every time she turns his way. But once these lovers’ fates finally intertwine, Joji’s desperation to learn the truth about his brother’s disappearance turns a shade of black so ultranoir he begins having other people’s flashbacks as well as his own!

No, this isn’t the noir you know already: certainly not that archetypal strain of American cine-anomie long since canonized by critics and cultists alike, and not even the Japanese prenoir of the thoroughly modern gangster films Ozu had been making for Shochiku since the early thirties, or the turbulent Toho crime dramas with which Kurosawa edged ever deeper into the modern world, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949)—two films that would nevertheless cast some of the longest shadows over Nikkatsu’s output a decade later (even if those shadows were still further refracted through the prism of Hollywood and French crime films that flooded Japanese theaters following the war). No, these late-fifties and early sixties cine-hybrids, with their weird weaves of taiyozoku teen heartthrobbing and hard-boiled nihilist repartee, were a distinctly fresh breed of urban thriller, a whole new thing for postwar Nikkatsu: mukokuseki action—a “borderless” B-movie blend of homegrown melodrama and cosmopolitan mayhem, pop art va-vavoom and pulpy tough-guy pow! that would dominate Far Eastern genre cinema for more than a decade to come.

With I Am Waiting, the waiting was over: a new generation of Japanese cinema had begun.


Rusty Knife: Booster Shot

Born in 1928, Toshio Masuda began as an assistant director at Shintoho studios, working with “women’s film” master Mikio Naruse and horror genre visionary Nobuo Nakagawa before following his mentor, Umetsugu Inoue, to Nikkatsu in 1954 (where he would also assist Kon Ichikawa on The Burmese Harp). In 1958, the year Shohei Imamura made his first film for Nikkatsu, Masuda—soon to be considered the most bankable director on the lot—turned thirty, and was paired for his third film with the young star Yujiro Ishihara, still just twenty-three. The chemistry was immediate: Rusty Knife became one of the highest-grossing releases of the year, and the Masuda-Ishihara combine continued for an eventual twenty-five films.

At once a systemic analysis of the symbiosis of postwar economic recovery and thriving syndicated crime and a furrowed scream of pain from the lingering social and psychological stab wounds of the war and its still-hemorrhaging aftermath, Rusty Knife ties the fate of the nation’s recovery directly to the reformation of Tachibana, a former yakuza flunky who’s gone straight after witnessing the murder of a prominent politician but still refuses to rat out the criminal cohorts of his past. (With Tachibana played by Ishihara, the fate of the nation seems, by extension, tied to the reformation of the entire taiyozoku generation as well—a desire with which the actor’s increasingly less rebellious characters seemed designed to comply.) Unfortunately, Tachibana bears scars deeper than the rustiest knife could slice: the rape and suicide of his former lover, and the five-year stretch he pulled for stabbing the man he believed responsible. And when Mie Kitahara—as the slain pol’s orphaned daughter, a producer of socially conscious documentaries on the subject of “violence”—begins to fall for Tachibana, and uncovers evidence that the rapist he murdered hadn’t acted alone, the admonition of one of the inwardly seething Tachibana’s former gangmates, “Wake him up, and you’re dead,” proves all too explosively apt.

Alongside its myriad genre pleasures (dueling dump trucks, jackknife vs. saber battles, a glimpse of soon to be Seijun Suzuki stud Joe Shishido as a hapless and horribly fated blackmailer), Rusty Knife provides a paradigmatic example of what might as well be axiomatic when peaking beneath the surface and seeing into the (a)moral imperatives of Nikkatsu’s aching-to-be-modern action films: if something smells like Ozu, it’s probably rotten already. No sooner do Kitahara’s guardian uncle and his cronies start beaming about his pretty young niece’s marriageability (as if they’d wandered over from the set of, say, Equinox Flower) than astute viewers will begin marking the minutes until the uncle (and all of avuncular patriarchy along with him) is unmasked as some sort of mad Mabuse, stealing the milk of Japan’s economic miracle from the mouths of modernity’s young. No wonder Masuda cuts directly from Kitahara’s buttoneddown meeting with a group of paternalistic police detectives to future Nikkatsu star Akira Kobayashi’s dashing young knucklehead and his “slut” girlfriend tearassing through crowded streets on a motor scooter, laughing and screaming and full of life, as the director surrounds them with canted, careening angles of city corridors that look back as much to the inventive vitality of Jean Vigo as they do forward to the more fevered freshness of the incipient nouvelle vague.


Take Aim at the Police Van: Calling All Cars

As Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife draws to a close, Mie Kitahara and Yujiro Ishihara wander slowly into the distance, her a few deferential steps behind him, tracing parallel lines that ultimately converge somewhere far off along the horizon—far beyond the mound of mud into which that eponymous dagger has at last been ceremonially impaled. Two years later, this real-life couple would jet off to Hawaii for an illicit and semiscandalous premarital “honeymoon” of their own (they consummated the legal formalities in public, at the Nikkatsu Hotel, a few months later, and stayed together until Ishihara’s death from cancer in 1987). So, too, in 1960—with the release of the at once literally and zanily entitled Take Aim at the Police Van—was another sort of Nikkatsu honeymoon in full flower, as director Seijun Suzuki began to conclude the cycle of kayo eiga (pop song films) and occasional noirish crime capers with which he’d begun his career at the studio, and edge (along with the studio’s new mukokuseki strain of action) toward the stormier phase of stylistic invention that would ultimately prove the breaking point in his relationship with the studio. (The divorce was finalized in 1968, when Nikkatsu boss Kyusaku Hori pronounced Suzuki’s Branded to Kill “incomprehensible” and ordered the director off the lot.)

With its surfeit of blind alleys, sudden bludgeonings, and delirium montages, its Wellesian proliferation of parting-shot punks, shadow-masked thugs, and conveniently faked deaths, Suzuki’s Police Van harkens distinctly back to his pre-mukokuseki ways, beginning with its fist-faced forty-eight-year-old leading man, Michitaro Mizushima—hardly the sort of matinee idol the new Nikkatsu action films were designed to feature, the so-called Diamond Line of mighty young guys like Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi (who quickly moved from Rusty Knife’s supporting role to the head of his own mukokuseki franchise, as a rambling guitarist and gunslinger in the Wataridori, “wandering bird,” series), and shortly thereafter, Tetsuya Watari and Joe Shishido. Mizushima—who had begun his career as a boy, making featurettes for Tomu Uchida well before the war, and worked for Suzuki on Underworld Beauty two years prior—plays Tamon, a prison guard who’s suspended when the vanload of prisoners he’s escorting is attacked by snipers and a con is fatally wounded, and who then begins an unofficial investigation of the case that leads him straight into the arms of femme fatale/Zen archer Misako Watanabe. But even as Police Van largely hews to Suzuki’s earlier crime style, it springs suddenly and unmistakably to adolescent life during Tamon’s encounters with a jukebox-intoxicated teenage sweater girl named Shoko. Mizushima would continue making movies, at Nikkatsu and elsewhere, for another thirty years, but after Police Van, Suzuki’s films would feature almost exclusively younger faces.

There are just a few of the outré visual shenanigans for which Suzuki would come to be known after 1960 on display in Police Van: the faceless gunman who lovingly strokes his rifle’s stock before sticking his bubblegum—for safekeeping—atop its scope; the onsen hooker who comes lurching out of the private show she’s been conducting like some burlesque Saint Sebastian, an arrow lodged fatally in her tit. Suzuki’s formative days at Nikkatsu would soon be over, but his wildest creations were still to come.


Cruel Gun Story: Offtrack Bet

The year before had been a momentous one: 1963. Seijun Suzuki had finally broken through as Nikkatsu’s supreme B-level stylist with Youth of the Beast, while Shohei Imamura scrambled to the top of level A with his socio-entomological triumph The Insect Woman. Over at Toho, Akira Kurosawa released his final modern-dress masterpiece, High and Low, and in December, Yasujiro Ozu, who’d been making films for Shochiku since 1927, quietly passed away.

By 1964, Yujiro Ishihara had made close to fifty films for Nikkatsu, and had lately been mellowing into the melodrama-heavy “mood action” niche the studio was happy to tailor for him. Akira Kobayashi had risen to a stature almost equal to Ishihara’s, even as the mukokuseki films themselves were beginning to fade. And while the studio’s Diamond Line still shone brightly, increasingly it was the least likely of those mighty guys, Joe Shishido, who began to turn up in one stylistically distinguished “hard action” potboiler after another—regardless of whether the director was a known comic-nihilist aesthete like Suzuki or a little-sung studio workhorse like Buichi Saito, who catered to Shishido’s surreal (and surgically altered) side in master-of-disguises mysteries like Kaito X: The Man Without a Face.

In director Takumi Furukawa, Shishido also seemed to sense a kindred soul, and their 1964 collaboration resulted in one of the hardest-boiled heist flicks Nikkatsu would ever produce: Cruel Gun Story, a seething denunciation of postwar American influence in Japan disguised as a tough-as–1930s Warner Bros. variation on Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, complete with a carefully designed (and easily fouled) plan to rob millions in horse-racing receipts, a crippled innocent in a wheelchair, and squadrons of Air Force fighter jets screaming overhead. Opening on a close-up of Shishido’s dour countenance, tightly framed behind a mesh of barbed wire, the tale of greed and betrayal that follows—set largely in an abandoned, litter-strewn U.S. Army party town—takes a page from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and a tip from Anton Chekhov: if Shishido finds himself brooding over past injustices next to an oil-fueled heater in the first act, it’s a cinch he’ll be having an even hotter time in old Yamato by the film’s incendiary act 3.

Furukawa’s debut feature had been Season of the Sun (1956), the taiyozoku scorcher that started it all, and he’d make another film with Ishihara before the year was through. But soon, management decided to pair young Yu-chan primarily with directors closer to his own age, and Furukawa, some twenty years the actor’s senior, didn’t fit the bill. (Neither did Suzuki, who never worked with Nikkatsu’s number one star.) Furukawa remained at Nikkatsu for over a decade, working often with the other Diamond Line stars, before following Umetsugu Inoue and Crazed Fruit director Ko Nakahira, in 1967, to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, which was willing to pay handsomely to import higher quality Japanese production standards. Once there, he changed his screen moniker to Tai Kao-mei, and promptly cranked out two glossy, gadget-laden espionage capers in the highest mukokuseki style, The Black Falcon and Kiss and Kill. Shaw’s own top directors quickly began to follow suit. Internationalized in essence and from inception, mukokuseki action, just as its embers were dimming at Nikkatsu, had once again gone global.


A Colt is My Passport: This Gun for Hire

Made the same year as such fractured tough-guy fantasies as Seijun Suzuki’s scat song of autoannihilation Branded to Kill and, on the other edge of the Pacific, John Boorman’s similarly prismatic pulp-mortem Point Blank, Takashi Nomura’s 1967 A Colt Is My Passport may have been one of the dying breaths of Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki noirs, but what a hot, blistering belch of action savagery and truck-stop heartbreak it was!

Opening with the moans of a haunted harmonica, a sudden gunshot, and the florid, Morricone-oni twanging of an electric guitar, Colt begins by practically begging to be seen in the light of the spaghetti westerns that had been sweeping the globe since 1964. And much of what follows—in mukokuseki terms, anyway—remains true to that already distinctly hybrid Euro-American form, as triggerman Joe Shishido and his guitar-strumming sidekick, Jerry Fujio, go on the lam after a job Joe’s done too well incurs the wrath of the very mobsters who hired him. (A rare freelancer in the lingering days of long-term studio contracts, the Shanghai-born Fujio had already appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, for Toho, and in several films for archsatirist Yasuzo Masumura at Daiei; for Nikkatsu, his Eurasian looks would become yet another index of the genre’s internationalism.)

Fans longer familiar with Branded to Kill are often quick to note the similarities between the two films: a bird, rather than a butterfly, providing a sudden distraction for Joe’s rifle sight; his occupation in both, a hit man on the run. But Nomura has his own, distinctively exuberant style: an alternately cramped and oblivionwide vision of destiny drawn in shotgun blasts rather than Suzuki’s surrealist filigree. Dragging a golf bag filled with guns and a freshly crafted time bomb through a dust storm on some barren wasteland, Shishido prepares for the film’s astonishing climax by digging a hole in the dirt: Is that his own grave? Is that tiny, skittering fly in the rubble a measure of his own mortality? The answers arrive in the sudden shapes of marksmen materializing from the swirling silt all around him.

Colt was another riveting star turn for the insouciant Shishido, who was discovered in a New Face competition at Nikkatsu in 1954. His first films were all supporting parts, and worried that his career might stall before it started, he decided in 1957 on a new face of his own, undergoing plastic surgery that would result in the puffier, comically roguish cheeks and immediately distinctive countenance we now recognize from numerous Suzuki classics. Nomura had been making mukokuseki movies with Shishido since 1961. By 1969, he had turned to directing jitsuroku (true story) yakuza epics like Showdown at Nagasaki; by 1976, he had disappeared from Western view.

What Nomura and all the other mukokuseki action directors at Nikkatsu during those wildly inventive days left us with is an indelible legacy of luminous, and sometimes outright loony, images of a world in vibrant chaos, a widescreen wonderland of mighty guys and long-suffering secondarios, gunsels and gamines and crooked uncles, whose collective motto could well have been drawn from one of Colt’s longest-resonating lines, a bit of epically hard-boiled hyperbole that concludes: “All that’s left for me is dust, and the smell of men and gasoline.”

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