In Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s epic comic-book memoir A Drifting Life, the veteran artist describes what it was like to grow into adulthood in late-’50s/early-’60s Japan, as an increased Western influence on the local popular culture made comics, music, and movies alike places where individuals could experiment with style while expressing their personal pessimism about modern life. The Nikkatsu Corporation was one of the media conglomerates responsible for pumping out the entertainment Tatsumi recalls so fondly, and the five-movie Criterion/Eclipse box set Nikkatsu Noir offers a good sampling of the kind of gritty, modernist crime sagas that helped change the tone of Japanese cinema. In films like Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1957 noir I Am Waiting (about a disgraced prizefighter who tries to help a singer get free of the mob), Toshio Masuda’s 1958 Rusty Knife (about two ex-cons dragged back into the life after witnessing a political assassination), Seijun Suzuki’s 1960 Take Aim At The Police Van (about a falsely accused man who hunts for the criminals who cost him his job), Takumi Furakawa’s 1964 Cruel Gun Story (about a disastrous armored-car heist) and Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport (about a freelance hitman caught in the crossfire of a gang war), an assortment of pulp-fiction archetypes wander through stories that are a little less rigidly codified than their American counterparts, thus more free to detour down a few alleys known only to the natives. These are movies about men in trenchcoats and fedoras moving from ancient temples and teahouses to elegant corporate boardrooms, transforming their society one shady deal at a time.
The best of the Nikkatsu Noir lot is also the most recent, 1967’s A Colt Is My Passport, which bears the unmistakable influence of Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville, and the “Parker” novels of Donald Westlake. The chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido plays a killer who conducts his business with ruthless efficiency and a strong sense of justice. The movie records the meticulous details of his operations (set to a twangy, mournful soundtrack) as he seeks to strike fear into his superiors’ hearts. The ice-cool righteousness of A Colt Is My Passport stands in contrast to the weakest film here, Rusty Knife, an overly melodramatic but still pretty good “this is the city” docudrama in which darkness consumes the good-intentioned and the wicked alike. The best thing about Rusty Knife is its eclectic location shooting and impressionistic action sequences, which are also a staple of the conventionally hard-boiled Cruel Gun Story and the decidedly kinkier Take Aim At The Police Van. Though Police Van helmer Suzuki hadn’t yet blossomed into the abstract artist he later became with movies like Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill, the film does emphasize sexual desire and the commoditization of humanity more than the other films in this set, and it does include the memorable image of a topless dancer falling to the ground with an arrow stuck in her chest. Like the stylish, slow-burning I Am Waiting—with its assortment of accidental killers yearning for redemption—Police Van and Passport stand up to the American noirs of the era, and are testaments to how artists pumping out quickie exploitation product can often work in truths about their times that prestige filmmakers can’t.
Grade: I Am Waiting: B+; Rusty Knife: B-; Take Aim At The Police Van: B+; Cruel Gun Story: B; A Colt Is My Passport: A-