Judge Ben Saylor is haunted by his past when, as a youth, he opened all of his Star Wars action figures.
"Do you like mystery novels, Mr. Tamon? Carr, Queen, Irish—their
work is so wonderfully convoluted."
The Criterion Collection's Eclipse line does something a little different for its 17th installment, Nikkatsu Noir. While prior sets in the series were organized by the same writer, director, or producer (or some combination thereof), Nikkatsu Noir collects five films made by Japan's Nikkatsu Studios in the 1950s and '60s. Each is made by a different director, and each represents the mukukuseki akushun, or "borderless action," type of film that Nikkatsu mass-produced. Taken together, the films in Nikkatsu Noir are a diverse, intriguing blend of drama, suspense, action, and of course, hard-boiled noir.
Facts of the Case
I Am Waiting: Boxer-turned-restaurateur Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara, Crazed Fruit) is desperate to escape painful memories in his homeland for the promise of a new start in Brazil; all he's waiting for is word from his brother to make the trip. One night, while posting a letter, he encounters Saeko (Mie Kitahara), a beautiful, despondent cabaret singer. Shimaki brings the distraught woman back to his restaurant, protecting her from the hoods from whom she's on the run. The more Shimaki and Saeko learn about each other, the more these damaged souls seem to share.
Rusty Knife: Prosecutor Karita (Shoji Yasui) wants nothing more than to put away notorious yakuza Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura), but without witnesses willing to testify against him, the prosecutor can't make anything stick. Then a letter shows up, naming Yukihiko Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) and Makoto Terada (Akira Kobayashi) as guys who could finger Katsumata for murder. Tachibana and Terada have gone straight but, not wanting any trouble, refuse to testify. Neither side is content to let the matter be, however, and Tachibana and Terada soon discover that being caught in the middle is a bad place to be.
Take Aim at the Police Van: When a sniper attack leaves two prisoners dead, Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima, Underworld Beauty), the guard responsible for their care, is placed on suspension. During his time off, Tamon decides to investigate the matter himself, only to find a treacherous web of deception, prostitution, and murder.
Cruel Gun Story: Togawa (Joe Shishido, Youth of the Beast) has just been granted an early prison release. Although he wants nothing more than to go straight and move on with his life, he is offered a potentially lucrative armored car heist. Togawa reluctantly accepts the job, which comes off almost—but not entirely—according to plan. Before long, however, Togawa finds himself on the run not only from the cops but also his former employers.
A Colt Is My Passport: Shuji Kamimura (Shishido) and Shun Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are hired by the Tsugawa gang to knock off the head of the rival Shimazu family. They are successful, but in the resulting truce between the two organizations, it is decided that triggerman Kamimura has to die. The killer and his partner find hiding places in short supply as they flee not one but two gangs.
SPOILERS to follow
I Am Waiting is more interesting for its excellent character work with its two leads than for Shimaki's rather pat third-act sleuthing. Writer Shintaro Ishihara (brother of Yujiro) and director Koreyoshi Kurahara do a terrific job setting up their main characters as haunted, sad people—Shimaki because he killed a man in a barfight, Saeko due to the decline in the quality of her voice and an ill-fated romance. Both yearn for an escape, and it is Saeko who first intuits that their salvation lies with each other.
Shimaki, however, will not be swayed from his dream of Brazil, and when a year passes without word from his brother, he becomes frustrated and bitter. This is when I Am Waiting takes a turn for the worse; it turns out the same gangsters Saeko's mixed up with were responsible for the death of Shimaki's brother. This element of the film feels contrived, which I'd be willing to overlook, but the truth is that Shimaki's investigation is never as compelling as the scenes between Shimaki and Saeko, which have a sensitivity and compassion that feels very authentic.
I Am Waiting is nicely photographed (Kurataro Takamura did the cinematography) and full of striking compositions, from our introduction to Saeko, standing by the water, to a scene of Saeko and Shimaki arguing on what seems to be a breakwater to a scene where the two are walking together and are visible only as silhouettes. The production design is also very effective; Shimaki's small restaurant, situated right next to a set of railroad tracks, feels appropriately lived in and greatly contributes to the atmosphere of the film.
Rusty Knife is a more nitty-gritty crime film than I Am Waiting, although Yujiro Ishihara once again plays a man haunted by his past. Five years prior to the events of the film, he stabbed a man who had raped his girlfriend. Now he runs a bar (the smallest watering hole I've ever seen) and strives to walk the straight and narrow.
Like I Am Waiting, the protagonist's past not only shapes his character but also becomes a key element of the narrative, as Tachibana learns that there was more to his girlfriend's rape than he was previously aware. But whereas the investigation is perfunctory and a little clumsy in I Am Waiting, with Rusty Knife, it's more fleshed out and dynamic. Rusty Knife is a more action-oriented film, the highlight being a nighttime truck chase. The narrative isn't particularly complex (and its conclusion unsurprising), but it's an enjoyable 90 minutes nonetheless.
Rusty Knife also has a solid villain in Katsumata, who is played to mostly great effect by Naoki Sugiura. A dapper, handsome man, Katsumata is a ruthless yakuza who is made all the more frightening by his easy grin and hearty laugh. His only sour note is his death scene, in which his superiors force him to eat a poisoned dessert while he's in jail. Sugiura's overacting, combined with the scene's excessive length, turns the moment into one of unintentional comedy.
Ishihara puts in another strong performance following his work in I Am Waiting. Frequent co-star (and eventual wife) Mie Kitahara is also in the mix for Rusty Knife, playing a reporter urging Tachibana to come forward. Nikkatsu badass Joe Shishido also turns up briefly as a would-be stoolie who meets a gruesome end.
Take Aim at the Police Van distinguishes itself from the titles already discussed due to its convoluted storyline. Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay (from a story by Kazuo Shimada) throws a lot of characters at the viewer and connects them in a dizzying array of plot threads. I think I understand how it all comes together at the end, but to be honest, I wasn't pondering it too hard while watching the film, which is a highly entertaining 79 minutes. Tamon is a terrific protagonist, relentless yet humane, and Yuko makes for a fascinating female lead. The pace is consistent throughout, and the visuals match the film's excitement.
Van is notable for having been directed by Seijun Suzuki (and is in fact one of five pictures credited to the director from 1960), the renegade whom Nikkatsu eventually fired following the dismal reception of 1967's Branded to Kill. Van comes several years before Suzuki really began his dismantling of the genre with 1963's terrifically bizarre Youth of the Beast, but there are still some quirky touches from the director here and there, most notably an early shot of a sniper stroking his rifle before placing chewing gum on the scope, and a scene where a prostitute tumbles through a doorway, an arrow piercing her exposed left breast.
Although Van seems to represent the sort of film that Suzuki would soon grow bored with (leading to Youth of the Beast, Branded to Kill, etc.), it's still a fun movie in its own right, and Suzuki fans will certainly want to see one of the director's formative works.
I Am Waiting, Rusty Knife, and Take Aim at the Police Van are alike in that their endings are, if not exactly happy, at the very least hopeful. The aptly titled Cruel Gun Story doesn't just break this pattern; it blows it to pieces with a conclusion that plays like the end of a Shakespearean tragedy in terms of body count.
As Chuck Stephens writes in the film's liner notes, Cruel Gun Story is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 1956 masterpiece The Killing. Both involve problem-filled robberies of racetrack money, and both are infused with the same grim fatalism that permeates the best of film noir. Indeed, of the films in this set, Cruel Gun Story is the one most deserving of the genre label.
Cruel Gun Story wastes no time putting its protagonist (and the viewer) ill at ease; Togawa is persuaded to take the armored car job but is forced to work with unreliable partners, and the viewer soon learns that Togawa's employers are not to be trusted either. Togawa is also deeply troubled by a truck accident that left his sister without the use of her legs. He knows he shouldn't take the job, but his cut could help pay for another operation for his sister. Of course, he takes the clichéd "one last job," and with that decision we know his fate is sealed.
The rest of the film plays out in appropriately noirish places like the grimy room where Togawa and his crew meet to discuss the plan, and a large, rundown building (in a town once occupied by American soldiers, one of the characters notes) where the crew hides out following the robbery. From here begin the double crosses, with the body count rising until finally, every major character in the film is dead.
Even if the crosses aren't particularly surprising, the film is still suspenseful and action-packed, and Shishido is great as the tough but world-weary Togawa. He's given solid support by Yuji Odaka, who plays Shirai, a close friend of Togawa's and the only trustworthy member of the heist gang.
Nikkatsu Noir closes out strong with A Colt Is My Passport. The opening of the film is a fantastically edited sequence showing the preparation for the Shimazu hit. After the assassination, the film slows down a little during its long second half, but even then, there are highlights: Kamimura and Shun using the brakes they installed in the back seat of their car to foil two would-be assassins, a musical interlude in which Shun plays the guitar and sings, a truck ride with Kamimura and Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), who works at the hotel where Kamimura and Shun have been hiding out.
Passport goes out with a (literal) bang in the form of a showdown between Kamimura and Tsugawa's men in a desolate, dust-swept expanse. This sequence is presented in an abstract, unrealistic manner; despite the completely open terrain, four gunmen seem to materialize practically out of nowhere. (Kamimura is too distracted by an existential interlude in which he observes a fly to immediately take note of their presence.) This may seem silly, but it's all to the good, as it gives the closing of the film an appropriately grandiose, mythic quality.
Passport's finale is a good example of the spaghetti western's influence on the film; Harumi Ibe's score clearly means to evoke this type of film, and Shun's musical number has a western feel to it as well.
The DVDs of these five films are handsomely presented. None of the films has perfect image or sound; there are instances of damage as well as some haziness and occasional flickering, but overall, I was very impressed with the technical quality displayed with this set. Each disc comes in a plastic slim case, with a cardboard sleeve to hold all five. In keeping with the Criterion Collection's practice for its Eclipse line, there are no bonus features included, although each disc contains informative liner notes by Chuck Stephens.
I really enjoyed Nikkatsu Noir, an unique and eclectic offering from Criterion's Eclipse line. While some of the movies included are better than others, there are no outright stinkers in the bunch, and the image and sound quality is quite strong throughout. Most fans of the genre should fine something to like with Nikkatsu Noir.
There aren't too many innocent characters to be found in these films, but
this set is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Rusty Knife
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Scales of Justice, Take Aim At The Police Van
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Scales of Justice, Cruel Gun Story
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Scales of Justice, A Colt Is My Passport
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