In the 1950s, many Japanese directors made films that urgently reflected the postwar realities of their country, from economic struggle to nuclear fallout. Another common theme was the influence of American culture on Japan, as seen in films by Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Masaki Kobayashi, to name a few. Kobayashi’s Black River is among the most startling of these, a grim tale that takes place in the neighborhood around a U.S. military base. Here thrive lawlessness and generally amoral behavior, as personified by the yakuza kingpin wannabe Killer Joe, played by a smoldering Tatsuya Nakadai in one of his first major roles. But Kobayashi also provides a glimmer of hope, in the form of a romance between a newly arrived bookseller (Fumio Watanabe) and a sweet-souled local girl (Ineko Arima)—though Killer Joe wants her for himself, leading to a dangerous love triangle. Watch how Kobayashi, an effortless visual storyteller, introduces the U.S.-occupied setting and all three of his main characters in the film’s opening minutes.
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Though it’s taken time for critics and audiences to catch up with it, Elaine May’s gangster film is now widely recognized as one of her most uncompromising explorations of human relationships.