Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nikkatsu Akushon! from The Warped Ones to The Machine Girl

This was one of the series I was most looking forward to on the spring Brattle calendar, but as luck would have it, the week it ran happened to overlap with one where I'd managed to buy tickets to two Red Sox games. Fortunately, The Warped Ones was used as a Sunday Eye-Opener, and that's one that conflicted with a game, but there were several others that I just couldn't get to, the "NOT AVAILABLE ON VIDEO" part of their write-ups cruelly taunting me from the schedule.

It's a crying shame that they're not, because these Nikkatsu films (and the contemporaneous fare that filled out the schedule) are a lot of fun. There's also something very uniquely Japanese about them, in part because of their international feel. As much as Japan has always been a land with strong traditions, one of those is a willingness to make foreign innovations their own. The tag on this series (and the book I bought to accompany it) was "No Borders, No Limits", and there's plenty of Hollywood and Europe in their DNA: Some play as great noirs, some recall the French New Wave. It was exciting to discover, especially once you get a look at just how many movies Nikkatsu released during their peak; the half-dozen or so that have been touring the world just barely scratch the surface.

The studio crashed hard after its peak; according to the book it spent the late seventies and eighties making "romantic porno", which isn't quite so bad as it sounds; it's pretty soft-core and not so hidden away as it might be in the U.S. There were more reorganizations after that, and I was surprised and pleased to see their logo on the back of The Machine Girl when it arrived the other day.

The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no Kisetsu, aka Season of Heat)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action! / Sunday Eye opener)

Part of the fun of watching The Warped Ones is the joy of discovery - it may not quite be a classic, but it's a very good movie, and one you might not know existed - although Nikkatsu Studio's youth-oriented films of the 1960s were incredibly popular in Japan at the time of their release, they lapsed into relative obscurity until recently. And even among the Nikkatsu catalog, The Warped Ones is a standout tale of youth gone wild.

Respectable people may say that it's that damn western music that gets it started: Jazz-loving pickpocket Akira (Tamio Kawaji) is caught and arrested in his favorite bar and sent to jail, where he meets Masaru (Eiji Go). When they're released, they hook up with Akira's prostitute friend Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), steal a car and engage in their various brands of petty crime necessary to pay their rent and bar bills. On a spree, they come across the reporter who turned Akira in (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his fiancée Yuki (Yuko Chishiro). He gets beat up; she gets raped.

These are not nice people, Akira especially, but they are the sort of energetic, amoral outlaws that have captivated moviegoers as long as there have been movies. There is something perversely attractive about someone like Akira who lives almost entirely in the moment, giving little if any consideration to such matters as the future or morality. Kawaji plays Akira as something just short of feral, not so much mellowed by jazz as distracted by it. He invests the character with a ton of charisma without ever angling for sympathy or leaning on some backstory that justifies his actions.

Writer Nobuo Yamada and director Koreyoshi Kurahara operate in a similar fashion; this movie is all about immediacy. It runs a compact 75 minutes, but every one of them is packed, from the frantic opening credits onward. There's a sequence or two that might make a person to scratch his head or wonder aloud just what the heck is going on, but the upside is that when those moments come, they're lively and outrageous without being repulsive. The sharp black-and-white cinematography and jazzy score are very nice, too, and both sets and location shooting convey a bustling harbor town rather than the formal, placid environments that might be found in a more traditional Japanese film.

Yamada and Kurahara don't quite condone their wild child main character's behavior, but they do seem to think that there's a thing or two to be learned from it. Petty or impulsive crime is one thing; organized crime is something else. And as distasteful as the idea of a woman seeking out her rapist for any sort of solace or relationship is, it doesn't make Chishiro's Yuki look entirely weak or pathetic; yes, she's a victim who has wound up in Akira's power, but she is also trying to face what happened to her, which is far more than can be said for Nagato's Kashiwagi.

Of course, trying to take away any sort of lesson from The Warped Ones is probably a mistake. It's all about the thrill and feeling of acting for the present, right, wrong, good, or bad be damned.

Also at HBS.

A Colt Is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action!)

The getaway is often the trickiest part of any bit of criminal skulduggery. After all, heists and hits can be planned, but at a certain point, escapes will have to be improvised, and that's where crime pictures stop being just exercises in cinematic cool and start getting suspenseful.

Here, the crime that must be fled is meticulously constructed, but not exactly to the satisfaction of its instigators - the hitman (Jo Shishido) takes all the information about his target's habits an basically concludes that he has to do the deed in the location that is least convenient for his employers. So in addition to the law being after him, he and his sidekick (Jerry Fujio) wind up running from the combined might of two yakuza families. The hitman wants to lie low until he can figure something out, but there's a girl (Chitose Kobayashi) at the truck stop where they're hiding out that Fujio's character has taken a shine to...

A Colt is My Passport is a methodical thriller, the type that spends a lot of time showing just how one might accomplish this sort of assassination. We follow the characters onto rooftops, listen as they discuss the challenges inherent in one approach or another, and feel the tension that comes from knowing what the next step is but also knowing how many assumptions getting to that next step entails. We also get to share in the satisfaction that comes from things getting pulled off right, or that it's somewhat unfair when they aren't.

Not all the details are so exciting, though - the series of meetings and negotiations that result in both the yakuza families that took out the hit and the one whose head was assassinated pooling their resources to find and eliminate the assassin is rather dry. I suppose that those who enjoy mob films more than me will be far more interested, but those scenes really do seem to go on for a long time and pull the action away from the main characters.

Those characters are a fairly amiable bunch; Chitose Kobayashi, for instance, has quite a nice take on the waitress with bigger dreams than her town affords her. Jerry Fujio is quite likable as the younger member of the team who will occasionally make mistakes or hesitate. Shishido, on the other hand, despite his famously chipmunk-cheeked face, is all business. He's not cruel or an automaton, but he's a guy who pretty clearly knows his stuff. He will, of course, have reason to lash out in the end, and that's certainly something to see.

The finale is one of the most memorable scenes of the movie; director Takashi Nomura transplants a showdown out of a western to a modern Japanese beach, with cars, automatic weapons, explosives, and carefully laid traps. It's a crazy scene, straining belief a bit but meticulous enough in its construction for the audience to go along.

Most of the movie hits that balance - a lot of fun detail, but seldom at the expense of muffling the action or making the characters just generic cogs. Yes, it has a bit of a draggy section in the middle, but even that will probably be pretty enjoyable for people who like mob politics.

Also at HBS.

Black Rose Mansion (Kuro bara no yakata)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action! + 60s Japanese Cinema)

Black Rose Mansion is a pretty crazy film - it gives us a strange, previously abandoned house occupied by an exotic figure who seduces both a father and his estranged son. It gets even better; that character is played by a famous female impersonator of the time, and it's never quite clear whether the seductress is actually a man or just played by one.

So, yes, it's a full serving of weird, but it's also slick, atmospheric melodrama.

The Red Handkerchief (Akai Hankachi)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action!)

There are some that rank Red Handkerchief as the best film produced by Nikkatsu studios during its peak, and I certainly can't contradict them. It's the sort of thing that makes for surprisingly great movie: The outer form of a detective story surrounding a core of regret, deception, and love.

It opens with a couple of Yokohama detectives chasing a gangster through crowded back alleys. Makimi (Yujiro Ishihara) is the rising star, a college-educated youth on Japan's Olympic shooting team, and Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) his working-class partner. Their quarry is hit by a truck, and the only witness - an old man running a ramshackle food stand - won't say anything. Makimi becomes infatuated with the old man's factor-worker daughter (Ruriko Asaoka), but any chance of a future romance is snuffed out when Mikami guns her father down during an escape attempt.

Jump to four years later. The head of Yokohama's organized crime task force tracks Makimi down in an itinerant construction gang. Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko) says he's always thought something stank about the whole situation, and he'd like Makimi to do some poking around - police forces don't like to investigate one of their own, after all. Makimi's not interested, at first, but when he hears that Ishizuka is now the wealthy owner of several local department stores, and is married to the daughter, well, that gets him curious.

You don't have to be a brilliant detective to figure out that Ishizuka is dirty, although gathering proof that would hold up in court is a different beast. Of course, discovering the hows that could connect Ishizuka to the local yakuza is probably less important to Makimi and the audience than figuring out the whys and whens. Was Makimi betrayed or did Ishizuka seize an opportunity? Did Ishizuka always have an eye on the girl, or is it like she says, that he helped her when she had nothing and Makimi had sent himself into exile?

This is the type of movie Nikkatsu called "mood action", a sort of soapy shoot-em-up. Ishihara and Asaoka were frequent co-stars in these pictures, and they're a good pairing. Ishihara was one of the studio's matinee idols, and though the script sometimes plays to that - Mikami carries a guitar with him and Ishihara sings the film's theme - but he gives the character more weight than that. Mikami is a guy who has had all his illusions shattered multiple times, and Ishihara makes him wary and weary, not really wanting to believe the worst of Ishizuka, with anger only gradually and tentatively entering his performance.

Asaoka also plays somewhat against type; usually cast in more glamorous roles, she comes across as sincere when playing the poor factory girl in the beginning, and somewhat adrift when we meet her again later as Ishizuka's wife. Nitani is good as Ishizuka; he switches places with Ishihara's Mikami in terms of class, and though he doesn't obviously carry an inferiority complex around with him, he does make it clear that jealousy could have been a motive back at the start. Kaneko was a busy character actor, and fits into the crusty old cop role with ease.

Director (and co-writer) Toshio Masuda handles his duties masterfully; he steers the setting between respectability and squalor with ease, piecing together a story about a man who seemingly has redemption forced upon him. The emotional stories peel back perfectly, so we as the audience feel like we're solving a mystery even though we basically all know the score.

A nifty trick, that. I can't say it makes Red Handkerchief Nikkatsu's best film of the period (after all, I've seen four or five out of hundreds), but I certainly hope the Nikkatsu Action! series currently touring the country's specialty theaters gets it an English-friendly DVD release, at least.

Also at HBS.

Velvet Hustler (Kurenai no nagareboshi) (aka Crimson Comet, Like a Shooting Star)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action!)

One of the recurrent devices in crime films is the big-city hood hiding out in a less glamorous place until the heat dies down. It goes back at least to We're No Angels, and recently turned up to good effect in In Bruges. Indeed, Velvet Hustler is itself a remake of a hit from the same studio and director, 1958's Red Quay, although by most accounts one with a very different tone.

That tone is insouciance, as laid-back hitman Goro (Tetsuya Watari) steals a snazzy American car and takes out his target, whistling all the while. As per the plan, he heads out of Tokyo for Kobe to await further instructions. A year later, he's still waiting, generally out on the docks with a gang of teenagers that have attached themselves to him. They steer American servicemen on leave to their preferred bar and brothel and get kickbacks. It's not Tokyo, but it could be worse. Speaking of which, another hitman (Jo Shishido) has shown up to eliminate a certain loose end, and a local detective (Tatsuya Fuji) is pretty sure Goro's a wanted man, but no need to stir up trouble, right? Then there's Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a brash young woman from Tokyo seeking her missing jewel dealer husband. Common sense tells Goro not to get involved, but, man, she's attractive...

Goro is the sort of hitman that comes across more as scoundrel than sociopath; though a capable killer, he never seems to be in any hurry to do it again. He's just aloof enough from the Kobe crowd to be cool without seeming like a jerk, and has enough good qualities between his good looks and understated loyalty to his friends to charm the audience. Watari is plenty likable in the role, combining Japanese reserve with western informality; he's sort of like Bogart in one of those roles where every word he deigns to speak (and every expression on his face) is either dry sarcasm or shameless flirting.

Ruriko Asaoka is the main object of that flirtation, receiving and returning it well. It's clear that she's not particularly bothered by the fact of her fiancé's disappearance, but the timing of it is inconvenient. Plus, going to Kobe and hiring someone like Goro to investigate is a keen way to be modern and independent. She sparks off Watari right away, but also convinces us that Goro has to win Keiko over.

She also gets to wear the most fab outfits. It is the swinging sixties, after all, and the filmmakers have a grand time decking Goro and Keiko out in the slickest finery, whether it be her miniskirts or the red sportscar he swipes in the opener. Goro's straw hat, with a hole in it so he can see anyone coming when the brim is down, is a little kitschy but clean enough to work. As much as a lot of the location shooting around Kobe is kind of nifty, and shows the kind of bustle a port city can have, director Toshio Masuda and company always make sure that when Goro and Keiko go into someplace that's supposed to be hip and happening, it's always trying a bit too hard or kind of shabby when you get past the bright colors. It's a pale imitation of Tokyo, and we understand why Goro wants to go back even though he has it pretty good in Kobe.

And for all Masuda does a great job creating a fun mood and inching up the tension when Goro finally can't quite juggle everything, there is the occasional sense that they are concentrating on atmosphere to the detriment of the rest of the film. The story's got a lot of moving parts that don't interact as much as one maybe might like, for instance. And after seeing Goro do his job effortlessly in the opener, it might have been nice to have him demonstrate his cool more through action than words or raised eyebrows. Although, to be fair, when the time for action does come, it's pretty good - as breezy as some of the movie is, people looking to kill each other is serious business, and the movie doesn't pretend that a life of crime is without consequences.

I'd be interested to see Red Quay - Masuda acknowledges the influence of Breathless on Velvet Hustler, and as much as that style is a big chunk of what makes this version enjoyable, I wonder what it was like before that style took over.

Also at HBS.

Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbikin no samurai)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2008 at the the Brattle Theatre (Nikkatsu Action! + 60s Japanese Cinema)

I first saw this movie in November 2005 and ended my review with a comment that it was, unfortunately, not on video. Two and a half years later, it's still not available in Region 1, and it's still a crying shame.

It does appear to have been released in Hong Kong, but I don't have a multi-region player. I should really get on that.

The Machine Girl (Kataude Mashin Garu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2008 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

The Machine Girl surprised me a bit, given the companies involved. Nikkatsu Studios has of late been the subject of a traveling retrospective which emphasized its cool, jazzy sixties output, far removed from this kind of in-your-face fare. Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock, on the other hand, is an American company that specializes in bringing this material to the U.S., and appears to be releasing it here unusually soon after (or even before) Japan. In some ways, The Machine Girl seems cynically designed to appeal to American fans of Japanese extreme cinema, but despite feeling somewhat calculated, it's also a bunch of fun.

The Machine Girl is Ami Hyuga (Minase Yashiro); after seeing her in bloody action during the opening credits, we flash back to how she became a relentless avenger with a machine gun where her right arm should be: Already an athletic girl, she and her brother Yu (Ryosuke Kawamura) were shunned after their father committed suicide after being falsely accused of murdering their mother. Yu and a friend are bullied to death by Sho Kimura (Nobuhiro Nishimura) and his crew, and the police won't help her. Indeed, one of the kids who bullied Yu was the son of the investigating detective, who along with his wife are the first to maim Ami when she comes for help. Ami eventually gains the help of Miki (Asami), the mother of the other dead boy, who trains her while her mechanic husband builds their new weapons, like the machine gun which replaces her severed left forearm. Which they'll need, because Sho's father is a yakuza.

A ninja yakuza.

Whose wife thinks he's too soft.

The story is absolutely ridiculous, of course. And sloppy - the movie flashes back after the opening action scene, but never reaches a point where that scene would logically fit. The motivations in revenge fantasies are seldom complicated, just by their nature, but even by those standards, Ami seems awfully sanguine about how much blood she spills, and she's not alone: Pretty much the entire cast winds up revenge-obsessed killers, none of them seeming to ever stop for a second and think, wait, this is not how civilized people handle their problems. The rationale for considering Ami the movie's heroine is basically "they started it".

The production values are also pretty cheap at times. There are basically no extras. CGI shurikens look like the most expensive effects used, and some of the practical effects are just as ridiculous. I think there's a scene where a character looks less bloody after getting an arterial spray in the face because it's just plain water with food coloring. The Machine Girl is clearly a spoof or pastiche of crappy exploitation films, but that's a dangerous game - it's an ugly thing when a filmmaker aims for sub-par and misses the mark.

Writer/director Noboru Iguchi seems to be one of the rare guys who can pull it off, though. He appears to be a guy who loves his schlock, and never shies from it. The guy who made "Sukeban Boy" is not going to wink at the audience and comment on how silly this all is; he's delivering blood and guts, not irony. It's way over the top - just how does someone puke up their intestines after being stabbed in the head? - but Iguchi almost always hits the sweet spot, where we're grossed out or titillated rather than actually disturbed. Iguchi also doesn't allow the fact that he's making an homage to trash cinema to be an excuse for laziness. There's always some bit of extra craziness going on in the corners, and he gets fairly serviceable performances (both in terms of action and action) from a cast that is not packed with big-name talent.

Minase Yashiro, for instance, is doing her first film. She's not exactly polished, but she brings what the character needs - cuteness and charm in the flashbacks, a spine of steel throughout - so that we buy into and cheer on this girl taking out yakuza she has no business touching. Asami's got a little more experience, albeit in softcore, and while it's a stretch to believe she's old enough to have a fifteen year-old son, she and Yashiro play well off each other; amid all the violence, they're getting something they need from each other. They both look like they can fight a little, too. Nobuhiro Nishimura does well making his bully a spoiled brat, and the actors playing his parents are a stitch - the father (sorry, no English credit) is both put-upon and monstrous, and the mother (Hiroko Yashiki, I think) is a great work of homicidal shrewishness.

The Machine Girl panders to a certain audience, no question about it - a Japanese schoolgirl with a machine gun for an arm wreaking bloody vengeance against yakuza ninjas is first order pandering. Iguchi has the knack for making it fun rather than cynical (although thinking back to "Sukeban Boy", I'm surprised he didn't figure out a way to get more T&A into the film), hitting the target a heck of a lot better than most people making deliberate trash do.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.