Fantoma // 1962 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // May 28th, 2007
"The first thriller about salaried workers."
That's what the 1962 theatrical trailer calls Black Test Car (Kuro no tesuto kaa), a tragedy with noirish overtones that follows a rivalry between two Japanese automakers. It wasn't the last: the accompanying booklet notes that Daiei, the film company behind it, went on to make Black Parking Lot (about pharmaceutical firms), Black Weapon (about electronics firms), and Black Riders (about motorcycle gangs in the black market) before Yasuzo Masumura returned to the genre with The Black Report and Black Superexpress. None of these movies starred Gamera, whose movies were a more familiar part of the Daiei fold.
"My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings," Japanese New Wave director Masumura is quoted as saying on IMDb. That he certainly does. Black Test Car has traces of satire in its exaggeration, but seems to take its cues more from film noir (as its protagonists descend into the dark side in pursuit of an industrial spy) and tragedy (as it ends with death and a tough personal decision).
Fantoma brings Black Test Car to the United States for the first time with this DVD release. The movie is based on a novel by Sueyuki Kajiyama; information on the author is rather sparse.
Black Test Car opens with the speed test of a car shrouded in black along a deserted road. Although the test team has checked to make sure there are no industrial spies, there's a camera on hand to send the photos to the papers when the car crashes and bursts into flames.
Tiger is hoping its Pioneer will be the first sports car made in Japan, and the company's going ahead despite the disastrous test. But will rival Yamato learn of their plans and beat them to the punch? Toru Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) hopes "to keep the Pioneer a secret and spy on our rivals." He's forming an espionage unit within Tiger and hopes to set a trap for the spy in the boardroom.
Onoda's mission isn't as easy as he thought, though, since his spy traps keep coming up empty. Each time he fails, he ratchets the battle up a notch, resorting to bribes and blackmail to get information. Still, Yamato's team manages to stay one step ahead of Tiger.
Onoda has a secret weapon: young assistant Yutaka Asahina's girlfriend Masako (Junko Kano) is a hostess at the bar Yamato boss Mawatari frequents. If she'll get close to Mawatari, her beau will become a department head -- and she'll become a bride.
Will Asahina (Jiro Tamiya) let his girlfriend sleep with the rival boss to get the inside information about Yamato's new car? Will Onoda find his spy? Will the launch of the Pioneer be a success? Will these two men be able to look in the mirror when they're through?
You might get a chuckle when you see the photographers pop out of the bushes to snap pictures of the secret test in the opening to Black Test Car. The overall effect, though, is more dramatic than comedic as the war of nerves tests how far Onoda, Asahina, and even Masako will go to protect the Tiger company.
Onoda starts out reasonably, sending out false information in an attempt to figure out how company papers are getting into the hands of Yamato. But each time he fails, he gets a little nastier. When Onoda and his men confront a Yamato executive who took kickbacks from a supplier, they look more like gangsters than salarymen. By the time Onoda finds a suspect, he's roughing the man up, even when the suspect may be innocent. When he's ruthless in questioning a second man, he says, "They're the same as police tactics," showing that he considers himself the ultimate law. Hideo Takamatsu handles these character changes convincingly, his expressions and voice showing what's inside as he goes from Dilbert to Jack Bauer like a sports car goes from zero to sixty.
Jiro Tamiya plays Asahina as an up-and-comer whose eagerness entangles him (and his girlfriend) in Onoda's increasingly desperate schemes. By the time Onoda wants Masako to spend the night with Mawatari, you know Asahina is ready to send her to the rival's hotel room. It's clear he's struggling with his conscience, though, when Masako asks, "Aren't you ashamed of asking your girl to do this?" Masako's expression of disgust is even more clear. Tamiya makes Asahina the viewer's entry into the film, creating a sympathetic character as he faces a moral decision.
The occasional comic moments come mainly from Mawatari's easygoing reactions to Onoda's schemes. When Onoda sends an executive over to attempt to sell Mawatari false information, for example, the Yamato executive offers the man carfare for his trouble.
The moral dilemmas are served well by the noirish black-and-white picture, full of contrast and shadows, and the heavy thriller score. Black Test Car's style hints at the stakes, easily as heavy as those in a classic noir like Double Indemnity. Fantoma's new digital widescreen transfer presents the picture in the best possible light. The dialogue's in Japanese, so it was hard to judge how it came across.
Extras aren't quite at the Criterion level, but Fantoma makes an effort to include a few tidbits. A printed essay by Chuck Stevens of Film Comment was interesting. The original trailer gives you a good snapshot of Black Test Car's style, but may leave too many clues to what's going to happen. The biography of Yasuzo Masumura provided basic facts but didn't delve enough into why he's important. This first encounter with his work, though, was intriguing.
The DVD case blurb stresses the "darkly hilarious satire" angle, which doesn't quite explain what's inside. Black Test Car is interesting, but if you were looking for yuks, you'll probably just say "Yuk."
Black Test Car is oddly compelling as it unveils its escalating corporate espionage. While I've been comparing it to noir films because of the obvious stylistic touches, it's at least as much a Shakespearean tragedy as we watch Onoda's moral descent and Asihina's struggle to rise above the situation. Yasuzo Masumura uses the noir style to highlight his film's weighty substance rather than simply delivering a typical crime story. Still, Masumura takes those noir stylings seriously. He has to in order to show the dark sides of his characters.
Not guilty. While Black Test Car's grim take on corporate rivalry might take some getting used to, it's worth taking for a spin.
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Photo Gallery
* Yasuzo Masumura Biography and Filmography