In Japan, film noir was popularized around the same time as its American counterpart and continued throughout the course of the Japanese New Wave. Following World War II, Japanese noir provided the nation with a sense of catharsis and enabled filmmakers to rail against convention, both in terms of technical craft and narrative. In this month’s Retrospective Roundtable, we explore a number of Japanese film noir films from filmmakers who became bold, visionary voices of their generation.
Stray Dog (1949)
By Alex Sitaras
An early film of Akira Kurosawa, Stray Dog was released four years following the end of World War II and captures a breadth of postwar ideology in addition to a compelling detective story. Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is a young detective who has his pistol stolen from him aboard a crowded trolley. He chases after the pickpocket, but his effort is of no avail. Returning to the police headquarters, he reports the theft to his superior. An investigation is opened and he is assigned to work with the veteran detective Satō (Takashi Shimura).
Mifune portrays the role of Detective Murakami with worry, but also intensity. Murakami is paranoid about the use of his stolen gun, and his fears are founded when bullets from robberies match that of his gun. His pistol had seven bullets when stolen, and this fact becomes of great importance as Murakami counts down how many bullets will remain when he apprehends the criminal. He and Satō track down Yusa (Isao Kimura) who bears the gun, a war veteran who became involved with the yakuza after needing money. Murakami sympathizes with Yusa, but Satō does not share this same compassion, suggesting that Murakami will lose this sympathy as he arrests more people.
With Stray Dog, Kurosawa portrays the illicit arms market, shady figures, and teamwork between dissimilar detectives in what becomes a precursor to later film noirs and buddy cop films. We can literally see the sweat that radiates from his characters, and this heightened sense of reality is maintained as Murakami hones in on Yusa and his stolen pistol.
Zero Focus (1961)
By Lauren Mattice
Viewer and lead piece together, side by side, the circumstances of a sudden disappearance in Yohitaro Nomura’s noir drama Zero Focus. A week after the vows of Teiko Uhara’s (Yoshiko Kuga) arranged marriage are spoken, her husband is gone without a trace. In quasi-Agatha-Christie–Last-Year-at-Marienbad fashion, Teiko attempts to find out what happened when every impulse directs her not to. This isn’t a film to set your mind racing, but rather to send a chill down the spine.
Contending with storied pasts and tests of empathy, Nomura traverses a landscape of shadowy influences and mysterious individuals to displace Teiko as far from the truth as possible, only to avoid any satisfaction at her nearing any semblance of an answer. Zero Focus triumphs on its own footing in the broader noir category as a test of an audience’s endurance and a character study beyond reproach.
Pale Flower (1964)
By Eugene Kang
Director Masahiro Shinoda may be better known for his bolder, more experimental works such as Himiko and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, but he was already distinguishing himself as a great visual and storytelling talent with more modestly budgeted films like Pale Flower. Pale Flower follows Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a jaded gangster who finds himself embroiled with the young, beautiful and wealthy Saeko (Mariko Kaga) when they encounter each other in an underground gambling ring. Shinoda is able to mine tension out of seemingly static environments like the gambling den with interesting blocking and subtle but dynamic action that illustrates relationships and the stakes of the games almost wordlessly. Pale Flower lacks the polish of a studio film for financial reasons, but Shinoda is able to make elegant compositions while telling a compelling story even with his limited resources. Both Ikebe and Kaga are brilliant in their roles, but Kaga especially gives a performance that makes her one of the most memorable femme fatales in any noir. Her innocent face and look make a sharp contrast with her reckless behavior and even at 21 years old, she is able to give off a worldliness that many actors twice her age wouldn’t have been able to do.
A Colt is My Passport (1967)
By Eugene Kang
Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport is an intense, slow burn for much of its runtime, while its action set pieces are some of the most explosive and thrilling among noirs during this time period. A puffy-faced Joe Shishido stars as contract killer Shuji whose escape with his partner Shun (Jerry Fujio) from the country after the killing of a prominent yakuza leader is botched, which forces them to go into hiding. Frustration after frustration pile up as they have to constantly elude the henchmen of the man they have killed, but much of the thrill of the movie is seeing Shuji constantly outsmart his opponents, though he does so with a harried desperation. The real draw for A Colt Is My Passport has to be the last scene in which we see the culmination of Shuji’s attempts to fend off the gangsters click into place in a hugely satisfying manner. The way that scene is cut and edited endows those few minutes towards the end with more urgency than many two hours-plus modern blockbusters. Any action director worth their salt needs to go back to the classics like A Colt Is My Passport and take copious notes.
Branded to Kill (1967)
By Ben McDonald
The noir films made by Seijun Suzuki are far from typical noirs or even typical films, and perhaps no single work of the eccentric Japanese director exemplifies this fact better than his 1967 masterpiece Branded To Kill. Starring the uniquely-featured Joe Shishido as Goro Hanada (the third best hitman in all of Japan), the film follows Hanada as he carries out various assassinations and struggles to survive attempts on his own life from both his deceitful wife (Mariko Ogawa) and the mysterious number-one hitman (Koji Nanbara) alike. I first came across Branded To Kill when I decided to throw it on as a double feature with Tokyo Drifter, the noir Suzuki made the prior year. Like that film, Branded To Kill is quite difficult to literally follow (degrees harder, in fact), shot and edited in a highly unique style that somehow both subscribes to and subverts the conventions of the noir. If you’ve ever seen a noir film, you’ll probably be familiar with many of story beats and stylistic flourishes Branded To Kill features and undercuts – the roguish anti-hero, the femme fatale, the shadowy mise-en-scene – but Suzuki brings such an indescribable, surreal quality to the film that makes watching it feel more like a firsthand experience than a story, and recalling it more like a dream than a memory. The fact that Suzuki was aggressively warned by the studios against continuing his idiosyncratic patterns of filmmaking and kept doing it anyway (ultimately leading to his being blacklisted as a director after he turned in the final cut of this film) only highlights what’s so incredibly refreshing and unforgettable about watching Branded To Kill.