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DVD Review: Nikkatsu Noir

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As a movement in Japan, film noir didn't really gather steam until 1957, when the venerable Nikkastu Studio plunked the stars of the mega-popular flaming youth flick, Crazed Fruit, into a despairing little potboiler entitled I Am Waiting. The box office success of this "borderless B-movie" led to a steady stream of hard-boiled features featuring hard-luck heroes, five of which have just been collected as a part of Criterion's Eclipse Series in a handsome box entitled Nikkatsu Noir. Good grim times for lovers of gritty black-and-white melodrama, multiple betrayals, and violent showdowns in the seedier fringes of the city landscape.

Koreyoshi Kurahara's Waiting, the breakout flick that opens the set, is in some ways the most curious — containing, as it does, elements of the "Sun Tribe" movies that first brought sweet-faced lead Yujiro Ishihara into prominence. An ex-welterweight once jailed for killing a man in a bar fight, Ishihara's Joji runs a seedy restaurant by the wharfs in Yokahama, dreaming of the day his brother sends him a letter from Brazil, presented here as a Land of Opportunity. We know from the mournful jazzy soundtrack and the rain-drenched opener that our hero's dreams are gonna be crushed, however.

Walking to the mailbox to drop off a letter to his brother, Joji runs into a sad-looking young girl (Mie Kitahara, the married vamp of Crazed Fruit), who he takes back to his restaurant. The girl, Saeko, is a cabaret singer who once had dreams of becoming an opera star until illness robbed her of her voice. ("I'm a canary that's forgotten how to sing," she says.) Mistakenly believing that she's killed a lecherous punk who attempted to assault her backstage, she's on the run from the punk's brother, a gangster who also has a connection to our hero's absent brother.

The duo have a believably tentative relationship in Waiting (Ishihara and Kitahara ultimately costarred in something like two dozen films together). Though he may be a pug with a violent temper, Joji also proves to be a sensitive young guy capable of crooning and strumming a ukulele. He's strong enough to face down the movie's former fighter gangster villain and his thugs, but, once he does, the movie leaves him standing by himself, crazed with sorrow over all that he's learned about his brother. Waiting may be noir, but there's a strong element of the misunderstood youth theme also common to the era.

Toshio Masuda's Rusty Knife, the second entry in the set, also features the twosome in starring roles, and, once again, Ishihara plays a character trying to leave behind a sordid past that inevitably catches up with him. In this entry, he's one of three would-be robbers who unexpectedly witnessed the murder of a councilman by a local gangster. When one of the three (Joe Shishido, the lead of two later entries in this set) is thrown in front of a train for attempting to blackmail the gangster, his death alerts authorities to the existence of the remaining two witnesses.

As in the first movie, Ishihara's Yuhiko has a regret-filled past. In this case, his girlfriend killed herself after being raped by one of the gangster's henchmen, causing our quick-tempered hero to kill the slime-ball in a murderous rage. Yuhiko dreads the capacity for violence that he knows is still within him. ("I killed a man with these hands," he tells Kitahara's girl reporter, who also is the daughter of the murdered councilman. "The disease, I still have it.") And when he learns that his victim wasn't the only one responsible for the sexual assault of his girlfriend, it's only a matter of movie time before that violent side erupts.

There's a subplot revolving around the councilman's killing, his reporter daughter's investigations into the assassination, and the presence of an evil criminal mastermind directing all the proceedings, but none of this is what lingers from the movie. What stays in the image of another fallen Ishihara hero, stumbling away in the dark from a showdown that has psychologically wounded him more than it has physically. A true noir protagonist.

In contrast, the lead in the box's center film, Seijun Suzuki'sTake Aim at the Police Van, isn't as damaged. A prison guard suspended after one of his charges is murdered during a raid on a police van, he takes it upon himself to track down the killers, venturing into a world of exotic dancers and hookers. A relatively decent guy, Michitaro Mizushima's Daijiro is largely unfazed by his explorations into the city's seamy underbelly, making him the least interesting hero in this set. Still, director Suzuki slips some great dark moments into the flick, most memorably a scene where a murdered dancer falls out in front of us with an arrow in her breast.

Two later Nikkatsu entries take a different tack with their protagonists, making them clearer antiheroes instead of flawed guys with a past. Both 1964's Cruel Gun Story and '67's A Gun Is My Passport starred Joe Shishido (the doomed blackmailer in Rusty Knife) as hardened criminals forced on the run after pulling off violent capers. In the first, he's called in to lead a heist on an armored car carrying racetrack money; in the second, he's a hit man hired to take out a Yakuza boss. In both, Joe's character is betrayed by the higher-up criminals who originally hired him; in Passport, it's when the rival gang who hired him enters into a partnership with the son of the slain gang boss. The one thing that makes Shishido the hero in both pieces is his unbroken loyalty to his fellow team members.

As a feature lead, Shishido is an intriguing specimen: fat cheeked with a dour expression that brings to mind a Japanese Jack Webb, he's a marked change from the pretty boy lead of Nikkatsu's earlier excursions into crime melodrama — and more believable for it. As if to compensate, the studio's crime films became increasingly more stylized, relying on Shishido's lived-in mug to anchor the proceedings. Takashi Nomura's 1967 Passport, for instance, liberally borrows the sound and look of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, but Shishido remains so naturally committed to his role as an unreflective hard-ass that we buy the movie's affectations. The movie's final showdown, with our man facing an army of hired goons on a desert-like industrial wasteland, is a doozy.

Criterion's DVD set doesn't contain any commentary tracks or other extras: just five handsomely transferred black-and-white movies in Japanese with English subtitles. Each movie does contain informative notes by Asian movie critic Chuck Stevens, who delineates each film's place in the studio's history and also points out many of the themes that keep emerging in these flicks. There is, for instance, an evocative post-war theme in most of the movies collected in this set: an understandable ambivalence toward modernization and the American presence in Japan after the war. Cruel Gun Story, for instance, opens on the image of an American Air Force plane tearing through the sky, while its gun-packed showdown is set in an abandoned U.S. Army party town; all that's left in the wake of the occupying army is noise and debris.

Too, these films evoke the grime of industrialization in ways that go beyond being just visually arresting: they show a world where a nation's past mistakes have seemingly led its characters to a gray and dusty dead end. As such, these flicks provide a tidy time capsule of a nation in a period of profound transition — even as they deliver some crackling B-pic thrills.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.