Starting on September 28, The Japan Society in New York will be running a monthly series of 8 classic Nikkatsu action films. The series will be curated by Mark Schilling, film reporter for The Japan Times, and Japan correspondent for Variety. Mr. Schilling, who selected the films, will be on hand to introduce the series and sign copies of his new book, “No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema.”
Before going all-erotica with its “Roman Porno” line of pink films, Nikkatsu cornered the market on tough guy gangster cinema with a tremendous run of low-budget, high-octane actioners. The films, many of which are being presented for the first time with English subtitles, include works by Toshio Masuda (perhaps better known in the West for his later anime work like Space Battleship Yamato and the Japanese sequences in Tora, Tora, Tora), Yasuharu Hasebe (the Stray Cat Rock series and the overrated Black Tight Killers), Koreyoshi Kurahara (Black Sun), Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub 4), and Takashi Nomura, many of them starring chipmunk-cheeked favorite Jo Shishido (Branded to Kill). Toshio Masuda in particular has a reputation among Japanese film scholars as a leading influence on Japanese action cinema of the ’60s - a man from even Seijun Suzuki took lessons.
It’s been an exciting couple of years for fans of 60s and 70s Japanese action and exploitation cinema, with DVD companies like Criterion, Panik House, Synapse and Discotek releasing a steady stream of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, Teruo Ishii and Pinky Violence films, and it just got more exciting.
More detailed information on the screenings and schedule from the press release follows below:
NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema
A Colt is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto)
Friday September 28, 2007, 7:30 pm
Launch Screening with curator’s introduction, reception and book signing.
1967, 84 min., 35mm, b&w. Directed by Takashi Nomura. With Jo Shishido, Jerry Fujio, Chitose Kobayashi.
In Nomura’s chilly noirish thriller, Kamimura (Shishido) is a hitman hired by a gang to whack a rival boss. After completing the job, he and his sidekick Shiozaki (Fujio) end up at a cheap inn where they meet a beautiful and mysterious inn keeper. Deadly complications impede escape, forcing Kamimura to improvise a grand break out.
Released before Seijun Suzuki’s better-known Branded to Kill, A Colt is My Passport bears a family resemblance in its hunted hitman hero, hard-boiled stylistics, and mind-bending climactic shoot-out, giving full play to Shishido’s panache and tough-guy cool. It remains one of Shishido’s Nikkatsu favorites.
The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu)
Friday November 9, 2007, 7:30pm
1960, 75 min., 35mm, b&w. Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. With Tamio Kawachi, Eiji Go, Yuko Chiyo, Hiroyuki Nagato.
Among director Kurahara’s boldest departures from studio convention, The Warped Ones (aka Season of Heat and The Weird Lovemakers) is a black-and-white portrait of youth culture gone wild. Kawachi plays Akira, a punk imprisoned for stealing. Upon his release, Akira meets the man who gave him up to the police, and rapes his fiancée. After learning the woman is pregnant with his child, Akira discovers his actions do have consequences: sometimes violent, fatal, and absurd.
Released shortly after Godard’s Breathless, The Warped Ones has similarly amoral characters, frenetic pace, and narrative structure. Kurahara’s vision is more extreme however, even to the point of existing in a world beyond normal comprehension.
Like a Shooting Star (Kurenai no nagareboshi)
Friday December 14, 2007, 7:30pm
1967, 97 min., 35mm, color. Directed by Toshio Masuda. With Tetsuya Watari, Jo Shishido, Kayo Matsuo, Ruriko Asaoka, Tatsuya Fuji.
Among Tetsuya Watari and director Masuda’s favorite Nikkatsu films, Like a Shooting Star (aka The Velvet Hustler) stars Watari as slick Goro, a Tokyo hitman who steals a convertible and heads for Kobe to hide out. When the daughter of a jewel company president arrives in Kobe to investigate the disappearance of her fiancé, Goro ends up helping her and trying to seduce her. Lurking in the background, however, is a hitman (Shishido) hired by Tokyo mobsters to whack Goro.
Masuda’s remake of his own Red Quay (1958), Like a Shooting Star differs dramatically from its predecessor. More self-consciously stylish and parodistic than the usual Nikkatsu Action product, this film resembles Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966), which also stars Watari, and shares the same art director, the brilliant Takeo Kimura.
Red Handkerchief (Akai hankachi)
Friday January 18, 2008, 7:30pm
1964, 98 min., 35mm, color. Directed by Toshio Masuda. With Yujiro Ishihara, Hideaki Nitani, Ruriko Asaoka.
A career landmark for both superstar Yujiro Ishihara and director Masuda, Red Handkerchief ultimately defines Nikkatsu’s “mood action” aesthetic. Ishihara plays a detective trying to crack a big drug case that goes awry when he fatally shoots the witness. After four years in exile, the detective decides to return to Yokohama to determine the truth about the unsolved case and his shady ex-partner.
The third-highest grossing Japanese film of 1964, Red Handkerchief signaled a new, more adult phase in Ishihara’s career, in which he played troubled, conflicted characters. It also marked a creative way forward for Nikkatsu Action films that continued through the middle of the decade.
Gangster VIP (Burai yori daikanbu)
Friday February 22, 2008, 7:30pm
1968, 93 min., 35mm, color. Directed by Toshio Masuda. With Tetsuya Watari, Kyosuke Machida, Chieko Matsubara.
Watari plays Goro, a gangster sent to prison for stabbing his childhood friend Sugiyama (Machida), a hitman from a rival gang. After his release, Goro finds Sugiyama and the two decide to forget their differences and leave the yakuza life entirely. When tragedy intervenes, Goro sets out for revenge.
The first installment in the six-part Burai series (1968-69), director Masuda calls Gangster VIP, “a youth film that happens to be set in the yakuza world.” Based on the memoirs of a real yakuza, Goro Fujita, this film is more starkly realistic than the then-genre standard and reveals a darker, more desperate side to Watari’s screen persona.
Plains Wanderer (Daisogen no wataridori)
Friday March 14, 2008, 7:30pm
1960, 83 min., 35mm, color. Directed by Buichi Saito. With Akira Kobayashi, Ruriko Asaoka, Jo Shishido.
In the nine-part Wanderer series (1959-1962), Akira Kobayashi plays Taki, a man with the looks of a Western hero–from a horse to fringe, a guitar and even a trusty bullwhip–traveling on Japan’s back roads. Taki involves himself in a fight alongside the Ainu (Japan’s aborigines) against a developer who wants to turn their land into an airstrip. In addition to having the landowner’s niece fall in love with him, Taki finds a rival then an ally in Masa (Shishido) as they exchange snappy banter and slick moves throughout the film.
Recycling genre conventions already familiar to most American audiences, but with a Japanese twist, “Eastern Westerns” like Plains Wanderer were a popular subgenre within Nikkatsu Action, most of them featuring a good-hearted hero battling injustice against the majestic outdoor backdrop of mountainous, remote Hokkaido.
Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast (Garasu no Joni - yaju no yo ni miete)
Friday April 4, 2008, 7:30pm
1962, 108 min., 35mm, b&w. Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. With Jo Shishido, Izumi Ashikawa, Daizaburo Hirata.
Inspired by Federico Fellini’s La Strada and a sharp departure from the Nikkatsu Action norm, Glass Johnny stars Shishido as a bike track tout whose mission in life is to make a winner out of a struggling rider (Hirata) and become rich as a result. Before he can achieve this, he becomes the unwilling savior of a pure-hearted, simple-minded prostitute (Ashikawa) on the run from her pimp.
Prior to Glass Johnny, Ashikawa’s portrayals of cute-but-spunky girls had won her a devoted male following–animator Hayao Miyazaki even later used her as a model for his anime heroines. In this film, however, she moves brazenly from childhood to womanhood, while following Giulietta Masina’s journey in La Strada from victimhood to transcendence.
Friday May 2, 2008, 7:30pm
1969, 86 min., 35mm, color. Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe. With Akira Kobayashi, Masako Izumi, Tatsuya Fuji.
In director Hasebe’s yakuza film, Kobayashi plays Yuji, a hoodlum who becomes involved with an ototobun (younger gang brother) trying to go straight. Yuji soon takes up with a hot springs geisha, the lover of a local boss, whose gang is facing stiff competition from an outside rival.
In Roughneck, Kobayashi shines as the charismatic antihero, who remains likable for all his swagger and shiftiness. His character prefigures the even-dirtier yakuza heroes in Kinji Fukasaku’s Toei films of the early seventies, beginning with Bunta Sugawara’s mad dog gangster in the seminal Street Mobster (1972).
Filed under: Movie News and Movie News: Japan and Book News and Film Festivals: News and People: Jo Shishido and Venues: The Japan Society