The explosion of Japanese gangster films in the 1960s was the great genre freakout of the era, and the rest of the world missed out on it for decades. While films by Kurosawa andKobayashi and Naruse played film festivals and art cinemas, and those by Oshima andImamura drove the Japanese New Wave, the domestic industry was turning out samurai movies and erotic dramas—which spawned the even more disreputable “pink films”—and colorful, high-energy gangster films. Where the samurai movie as a type had some cachet and international exposure, thanks to a decades-long history and a sense of being “the Japanese western,” the gangster movie was modern, urban, and immediate—a pop-culture response to economic anxiety and youth culture. At first these films failed to break out of the Asian market, either as arthouse curiosities or commercial genre artifacts. They were practically unknown in the west until the stateside “rediscovery” of Seijun Suzuki in the 1990s led fans to further exploration in the genre.
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of the nation’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. They were shot quickly and cheaply, cast from a stock company of actors who would become genre icons (Jo Shishido, Testsuya Watari, Akira Kobayashi), and driven by the energy and anxiety and nihilism of the “sun tribe” genre of youth-gone-wild movies—Japan’s answer to the teen-rebel drama—that also proliferated in sixties. No one at Nikkatsu topped the insanely prolific Seijun Suzuki.
Seijun Suzuki isn’t necessarily a familiar name to many fans of foreign cinema — he was practically unknown outside of Japan for decades — but in the early 1990s, his “rediscovery” stateside made him an instant cult hero to fans of genre cinema with maverick visions. Suzuki was nothing if not a maverick, a prolific filmmaker who cranked out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s — war movies, youth dramas, roman porno and especially yakuza thrillers — on tight shooting schedules, and managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) is one of Suzuki’s greatest, and by that I mean one of his wildest, weirdest and most unpredictable. Ostensibly a gangster thriller about a rival mobs locked in a war over a business venture after one outfit tries to go legit, it plays like a mix of spaghetti western and samurai melodrama relocated to the pop-art splendor of 1960s Japan, a world of swinging discotheques and sleekly austere nightclubs on the one hand, and grimy waterfronts and seedy hideouts on the other. Suzuki opens the film on the latter: a gangland beating on the docks in overexposed black and white.
It’s a rough and ready introduction. As a trumpet brays a tune that sounds like a nightclub version of a Morricone theme from a lost Sergio Leone film, the object of the abuse refuses to lift a finger while. But as the thugs leave he looks down at a toy gun, jumping out of the image as single drop of red into the monochrome landscape, and mutters “Don’t get me mad.” Suddenly Suzuki blasts the screen with comic book color and pop-art hues. The grit just turned groovy.
Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari is the Tetsu, aka Phoenix, the Tokyo drifter of the title. Looking like the young, Japanese pop-star incarnation of Alain Delon in his dark glasses and sporty suits, Tetsu is the unfailingly loyal right hand to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), a one-time yakuza godfather gone straight. Thus his refusal to fight, proof of the honor of his vow to steer clear of the rackets. It only encourages ambitious rival Otsuko (Eimei Esumi), a fast-rising thug headquartered in back of a discotheque perpetually filled with gyrating kids, to move in on Kurata.
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of Japan’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. Whether or not the five Japanese gangster films in the Nikkatsu Noir box set from Eclipse are true noirs is debatable, but they are lively B-movie artifacts from the wild and weird era of Nikkatsu’s glory days of crime movie programmers, when the mob movie rats (like Seijun Suzuki) ran wild through the genre.
It’s no surprise that the Suzuki contribution to the set is the most visually and stylistically dynamic, which is not necessarily to say it’s the best. Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) has a great title, a dynamic opening scene (which, no surprise, begins with a police prisoner transport bus sighted through a rifle scope) and a thoroughly routine detective plot that Suzuki turns into a hot-blooded crime conspiracy thriller featuring kidnapped girls, punk snipers, a stripper killed with an arrow to the breast, a paroled criminal tossed off a cliff, faked deaths, hidden agendas and a prison guard (Michitaro Mizushima) turned dogged investigator trying to piece it all together. In classic crime movie fashion, the bad guys don’t just shoot the good guys, they tie them up in the cab of a gas tanker, let the brake off and send it down a hill trailing gasoline, and light a match to the trail. Given the incendiary dimensions of the scene, I’m particularly impressed that the victims use a lighter to try and burn through the ropes before the fire catches up to the tanker. Mizushima has a real straight-arrow presence amidst the cast of crazed killers, colorful small-time crooks and wild girls, but he has the personality to hold his own and Suzuki packs a lot into 79 minutes of black-and-white Nikkatsuscope craziness.
In fact, all the films in the set are B&W widescreen with the exception of the Koreyoshi Kurahara’s moody I Am Waiting (1957), the earliest film in the collection. The tale of an optimistic bar owner with dreams abroad and a beautiful runaway singer with a painful past (“I’m a canary that’s forgotten how to sing,” she explains) has an atmosphere that recalls the grim beauty of the Jean Gabin French poetic realist films of fog-wrapped port towns and pitiless villages. It’s the outskirts of Yokohama here, where handsome, helpful ex-boxer Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a pretty girl (Mie Kitahara) from a rainy coast storm and gives her a place to stay in his colorful dive of a dockside bar. They’re both walking wounded, licking their wounds from careers cut short, but it takes another shot to knock the dreams out of Joji and set him on the trail of his brother’s killer, which just so happens to lead to the gangster who has made a claim on the girl. The fog, the night scenes and the grimy port town atmosphere do wonders to keep the budget down and the mood up, but it all gets less dreamy and more tawdry as Joji goes up against the gangster thugs and battles it out in a nightclub with a floor that lights up. It’s easily the most restrained film in the set, more mood piece than action movie, which gives it a little more class than the more aggressively explosive films that follow. And a great bluesy theme song crooned like a lament.
A similarly regret-laden saloon song is crooned over the credits of Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958), which is otherwise more gangster thriller than shadowy noir, complete with a Naked City-style opening narration explaining the culture of crime and corruption ravaging the city. As an arrogant crime boss laughs off every arrest with a hearty cackle, a crusading District Attorney pressures a former criminal (Yujiro Ishihara) trying to put his past behind him to testify, to no avail. At least not until it becomes personal, a matter of honor and revenge. There’s plenty of blackmailing and double-crosses and suicide and Jo Shishido (pre-plastic surgery, just before he became a genre icon with the puffy cheeks) gets tossed off a train, and sure enough a rusty knife is pulled out for a bout of poetic justice. Conventional all the way, to be sure, but the juvenile energy of young thug high on hush money and the city streets and abandoned lots shrouded in night give it a perfectly shadowy atmosphere.
Jo Shishido has barely a few minutes of screen time in Rusty Knife but takes the lead in the final films in the collection, with his now distinctive chipmunk-cheek look in place. (Chuck Stephens writes a bit about the curious – and strangely successful – plastic surgery that Shishido undertook to give him those puffy cheeks and set him apart from the rest of the pretty-boy action starts in the accompanying notes). Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs. Togawa (Shishido), sprung from prison early so he can run the heist for a big business gangster leader, has reservations about the job and for good reason. He and his reliable second-in-command are stuck with a sneering junkie and a punch-drunk boxer a few knocks away from brain death. Shishido’s Togawa is a cool customer, pensive and still, always sizing up the situation, which serves him well when the perfect armored car heist hits a glitch. It’s telling that they hole up in a former American military base, now a decaying slum of rotting buildings; the American influence hovers over the entire film, a classic American crime movie in a Japanese idiom. â€œI need payback,â€ Togawa demands, just before he’s grabbed by thugs who would like nothing better than help him metes out his revenge without mercy. The brassy score powers it along with a driving beat, down into the sewers and back up into a thoroughly nihilistic ending.
The set ends in 1967 with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, though if I’m not mistaken it’s actually a Baretta that is assassin Shuji’s (Shishido) handgun of choice. For his hit on an aging crime boss he uses a high powered rifle, but the killing is the last thing that goes right on this job. With the airports and docks covered, Shuji and his partner hole up in a port town truck stop while awaiting new travel plans. Once again, Shishido is the cool customer in a world of easily corruptible crooks and civilians. He trades his own life to rescue his partner, but in this world it’s apparently just fine to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot it out at your surrender. Shuji is a pretty far sighted guy; he has a second brake hidden in his getaway car and even digs himself a shallow grave for the final showdown, but he’s got other plans for it. The great spaghetti western-inspired score adds familiar Japanese instruments and jazz inflections as it progresses, becoming a real genre symphony, and Nomura pulls out all stops for the mad shoot-out in an abandoned quarry: this film’s answer to the desert plains of a spaghetti western. It ends the set on a high note and I was left high on crazy crime movie fumes. None of these are masterpieces but they are all inventive little nuggets of genre fun with energy, attitude and style, and in moments–such as the wild finale here–it’s just plain delirious.
Eclipse is Criterion’s budget-minded line of box set so there are no supplements, but Asian film expert Chuck Stephens provides brief essays with each film. Stephens has a rather overripe writing style, more expressive of his love of the films than of the films or the genre itself, but he does offer some context and background on the films and filmmakers and on the youth culture that brought younger and younger faces on to the screens.
The transfers are all fine, the earliest showing a little wear, the later ones sharper and with strong contrasts. Only Take Aim at the Police Van shows any noticeable flaws: in the master shots the image has a soft pocket in the center right, but only for long shots. Close-ups and medium shots look fine, which leads me to believe that it’s an issue with the master materials. Regardless, it’s a very minor issue and does not distract from the film. The soundtracks are strong, with only minor hiss, and the music comes through strong and clear. All in all, a real treat.
It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.
With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.