Criterion's Eclipse label brings together a fine no-frills, no extras edition of five noir thrillers from Japan's Nikkatsu studio. They're not all great films, but together they make for an excellent collection.
For much of its rather slow first half hour, I Am Waiting plays more like a 60s British quota quickie than a Nikkatsu noir as Yujiro Ishihara's boxer who has lost his licence after killing a man in a bar meets Mie Kitahara's canary who has forgotten how to sing and who thinks she may have killed the lowlife brother of the petty gangster owner of the club she's forced to sing at. Every time she takes a step closer, he takes a step back, willing to 'lie' about his feelings and pretend it's love as he waits for his brother to send for him to come to Brazil and start a new life as farmers. But the letters are returned unopened and Kitahara's employers turn out to know more about his brother's disappearance than he does.
There's more than a whiff of Quai des Brumes about it, the boxer's restaurant a haven for lost souls like Isamu Kosugi's doctor, who gets a cheerfully matter-of-fact confessional as he tells her "I love to drink. I've made mistakes because of alcohol, but I've also survived this long because of it. I feel invincible when I drink. It's good for your soul to have one thing you can fall back on, be it alcohol, money or love. Unfortunately I have no luck with the last two." It's a world where everyone has some kind of past and everybody used to be somebody else before they ended up here - even the villain. With it established early on that the mobster is also is a former boxer it's pretty obvious that this is going to end up with the two former pugs sparring with the gloves off. (More surprising to a western viewer is the attitude to police and bureaucracy, both of whom are unfailingly helpful in providing our hero with information even if they regard the case as closed.)
The film does suffer from that rather too slow first half, but the time it spends character building pays off as a wild and unlikely plot contrivance sets the plot spinning off into thriller territory, with the inevitable confrontation carrying a bit of weight because we've got to know and care about the two unlikely lovers. Definitely one of the gems of this collection.
Although I Am Waiting was not their first pairing, it's no surprise that Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara would go on to make more than two dozen more movies before she retired in 1960, although neither is as good in 1958's Rusty Knife, with Kitahara in particular making little impression in a bland idealised role. But it's perhaps not so surprising they have little chemistry together in a film that's much more plot-driven than character-driven. This time Ishihara is one of a pair of trying-to-stay-reformed petty crooks whose past comes back to haunt them after a pre-plastic surgery Jo Shishido attempts to blackmail a yakuza boss (Naoki Sugiura) who murdered a councilman only to find himself on a very short train ride. With him out of the way, Sugiura tries to ensure the remaining two witnesses stay silent while the ambitious D.A. in the corrupt industrial city that's grown up in the ruins of the pre-war armaments industry tries to persuade them to testify because "People don't change so easily. And everyone remembers." While his fickle friend Akira Kobayashi is only too happy to take their bribes and live la dolce vita, Ishihara's decision to stay silent is complicated by his friendship with the victim's daughter (Kitahara) and revelations about who really raped and killed his former girlfriend...
It's a solid thriller with most of the right classic ingredients - not too smart characters trying to stay out of trouble but just digging themselves in deeper, obvious corruption in high places behind all the lowlife scheming and an equally obvious criminal mastermind - as well as a few quirks of its own, like a villainous sidekick peppers his dialogue with French phrases and one wildly overacted death by chocolate, and a decent truck chase. Yet it never has the resonance of I Am Waiting even if its plot is probably a little less contrived, while the at times slightly overexposed cinematography often gives away the rushed production line nature of the picture. A decent Nikkatsu noir, but not a great one.
Starring hamster-cheeked Joe Shishido, possibly the only man to have worse plastic surgery than Michael Jackson without actually being married to Liza Minnelli, 1967's A Colt is My Passport's title may be something of a misnomer - he doesn't actually have a Colt (it's a Beretta) - but it's a surprisingly terrific late Nikkatsu noir. Kicking off with a cool and controlled minimalist style as Ishodo and his partner assassinate a gang member with consummate underplayed professionalism before also moving into Quai des Brumes territory (complete with not-quite romantic interest girl who dreams of escape but never gets round to it) as their getaway goes wrong, their employer sells them out and they find themselves in a dead-end truckstop motel waiting for a boat out of town before the hitmen come, it's not big on originality but it's all done so well that it never really matters. Filled with neat little touches like Ishodo lighting a cigarette to check for wind direction before the hit, a brief but impressively energetic and imaginative shootout (think True Grit without the horses), a terrific score that riffs on Morricone's spaghetti western scores, great black and white scope visuals and not an ounce of fat, it's quite a winner.
Seijun Suzuki's wonderfully titled Take Aim at the Police Van is a very different story. A humourless production line Nikkatsu noir that plays for much of its 79-minute running time like an uninspired British quota quickie with marginally more visual imagination and saddled with a reliable but rather dull lead in Michitaro Mizushima, it doesn't make much of its promising setup as a suspended prison officer who believes that all people are good at heart tries to find out who shot at his police van and killed two of his prisoners and uncovers a vice ring in a plot involving a femme fatale with a talent for archery, a mysterious Mr Big and the odd faked death. There's not much in the way of stylisation beyond a flashback montage replaying scenes against a pure black background or the striking image like a dead stripper with an arrow in her naked breast and for the most part it plods formulaically along without character or story making much of an impression. Things do rally for the finale, though, with a neat setpiece with the hero and heroine tied up in a runaway leaking oil tanker and a decent rail yard shootout, but it's nothing to write home about.
Takumi Furukawa's 1964 Nikkatsu noir Cruel Gun Story is everything you could want in a heist movie, and one of the least Japanese Japanese movies ever made: everything, from the wardrobe (western suits and hats) to the weapons (ex-G.I. rifles) to the choice of locations (an abandoned US Army party town) to the casting (Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi's gang boss even looks like Edward G. Robinson), has a distinctly hardboiled American feel to it with perhaps a slight dash of Melville, and it's far from accidental. There are obvious influences from Huston's Asphalt Jungle, Kubrick's The Killing and Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery as Jo Shishido is sprung from prison to steal 120 million yen on its way from the racetrack with a very ill-assorted crew consisting of an old friend, a punch-drunk one-time contender and a junkie (and that's after they've shaken down a would-be sidekick to find out if he can be trusted to keep his mouth shut or not in on neat sequence). Shishido may be given a crippled sister to give him some audience sympathy, but he knows he's been desensitised by violence to the point where only getting the money matters. But then, none of these characters are nice guys and they don't care who they kill to get their hands on the loot in a world where "feeling safe is the most dangerous thing you can do." Naturally things go wrong when the security guards don't act as stupidly as they had planned and even before they get their hands on the loot it's pretty clear there are plenty of double-crosses in the offing.
The action scenes are particularly well handled and a bit more imaginative than the norm, and with superb black and white Scope cinematography with the kind of deep blacks you don't see anymore that recalls the best of John Alton's work in American noir, it looks terrific throughout. It may not stray much from the pre-determined fatalistic formula of post-war American noir, but it does it so very well you won't complain.