A Colt is My Passport (1967)

Nikkatsu studio’s reputation for these kinds of down and dirty pieces of noir pulp employed action and gangster plots to entice the youth market. Obviously, the influence of the American canon cannot be disregarded, and yet the films came into their own given Japan’s own turbulent history with syndicated crime.

However, A Colt is My Passport does something more with the genre archetypes. It starts with this mythical weapon, not traditionally of mobsters and hitmen, but western heroes and villains dueling out on the range. Wherever the firearm might have progressed, it always carries this mythos about it.

As such, the movie is introduced with a whistling, stringed, and partially staccato score that might as well be plucked out of a  spaghetti western. Further strengthening the ties is Quick Draw Joe, a movie Joe Shishido starred in that was also directed by Takashi Nomura. Now half a dozen years they meet again to build on their collaboration.

The initial beats are familiar if you’ve seen any of these types of pictures. There’s a target to knock off. His name’s Shimazu, and when he’s not constantly being shadowed by a bodyguard, he’s stashed away behind bulletproof glass. It’s a tough job with only one day to see it out.

In this world of guns and souped-up automobiles, Shishido, the chipmunked-cheeked cult hero of cool, somehow feels right at home. It’s all part of his work as he studies his target, sets himself up with a hotel room, and then prepares to get in and get out with surgical precision behind his sniper rifle.

If there’s a methodology here it suggests how Colt is a film built out of a regimen and the setting of its protagonist in an architectural world. He is always completely cognizant of his location and how he functions in relation to the spaces around him. Thus, it becomes as much about mood and milieu as it is focused on action and violence.

Take for instance, how the story is constantly switching contexts. It’s in a car, about getting to a plane at the airport, holding up in a hotel, then fetching a barge out of the country, and when that fails, commandeering a big rig to retaliate against the enemy.

Of course, there must be a love interest. In the subplot, Mina, a young woman who works at the Nagisakan hotel, offers them asylum from their pursuers. What draws her to them? She says the god of death follows in her wake. Her former beau must have been like them, and as she spends her days serving the riffraff and sewer rats always loitering around, she looks to take back her life in some way. This is her form of rebellion in a world generally dominated by men.

However, even with the proliferation of gangster imagery and this kind of masculine bravado, the contours are the film consistently emulate the West with its own recurring motifs. There’s a musical aside of guitar not unlike Ricky Nelson or Dean Martin might knockback in Rio Bravo (Your star is a lonely little star…but now your face is a ghost town in the mist”).

It’s a way to bide the time before inevitable showdowns while also distilling this sense of male camaraderie in such a way as to make it palpable. It evokes the loyalty forged between two men, one mentor and his pupil, who have been through so much together. He shields his partner by giving himself up.

He knows where he must go. Where else would we end up but a deserted, windswept landfill where we half expect to see a tumbleweed roll by? Instantly the urban world and streets, even the maritime port of Yokohama, all but evaporate and fade into the periphery. The entire film culminates in one definitive moment where the sides are drawn up all but prepared to have it out in an instant. While the final showdown is fairly spare, it still manages to blow the lid off the picture with its gritty cross-pollination of the noir, western, and yakuza inspirations.

It’s hardly drawn out — finished in what feels like a few suspended moments of chaos — and yet it might be one of the most monumental standoffs you’ve ever seen. As Shishido digs a hole (what might as well be his grave), then sets a charge of dynamite, which might as well be a self-destruct mechanization, and then finally fights for his life, we are inundated by the full brunt of the impact.

There’s hardly any mistaking who came out victorious, but then again it might be just as difficult to claim a hero as a man totters away from the wreckage.  I’m not altogether familiar with the etymology of “borderless action” cinema as marketed by Nikkatsu, but here it feels like one meaning is about this unabashed melding of genre and inspirations.

Shishido channels hitman, gunslinger, and jaded antihero all rolled into one. He’s got a dash of Eastwood, maybe a bit of a Melville assassin, but also a distinctly Japanese sensibility. It creates this pleasing amalgamation that finds something rather gripping in its myriad of influences. There’s an indiscriminate and still somehow an artful freedom to it drawing me in all the more. 

4/5 Stars

Youth of The Beast (1963): Directed by Seijun Suzuki

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A crowd gathers outside the Yamato Hotel. Inside two lovers are slain, the cops milling about the crime scene: The man and the woman. The note. It all points to a double suicide (Shinju) and with it a conventional police procedural.

It very well could have been if not for one man: the film’s director Seijun Suzuki. He’s not known to the same degree as some of the hallowed masters of Japanese cinema, but he’s certainly an incomparable creator.

Suzuki is one of the most visually inventive wizards of the shoestring budget crafting a kind of stylized dynamism one doesn’t soon forget. They’re high on color, octane, and idiosyncratic flourishes. There’s nobody quite like him and given his talents, it’s quite the compliment. He could make a shoebox interesting. Instead, he has something genuinely engaging for us to be involved with.

It becomes increasingly apparent the shady business deals and operations around town are run by capitalistic scuzzballs, although we’re not just supplanting the American mafia. Though the film is rampant with gun culture, it’s not quite a House of Bamboo type of racket either, where the outsiders are at the top of the food chain, be it crooked G.I.s or other expatriates. It’s very much a homegrown kind of vice, and it makes sense given Japan’s deeply entrenched traditions of the Yakuza.

What Suzuki offers this already well-established culture and genre is a punchy, vibrant sense of cool searing everything it touches like dry ice with fireworks set ablaze in the streets simultaneously. You can’t help but look. The colors burst with the jazzy frenzy of it all, easily holding court with the French New Wave.

Equally important is a central protagonist, and the director partnered with one of his best in Joe Shishido, who was fashioned into a bit of a cult hero thanks to the yakuza flicks of Suzuki and others. There’s something oddly iconic about his distinctly chipmunk-cheeked profile.

Even as someone who was previously aware of his facial augmentations, his look is at times perturbing, pulling him out of the realm of reality and making him into a bit of a comic book action figure. And he fits the mold well as a cocksure yakuza enforcer.

He steps on people’s hands, throws men about, walks into bars like he owns the place with girls flocking around him. At the end of it all, he earns himself a salary at gunpoint. It’s quite the introduction.

What sets him apart is not simply self-assured, enigmatic cool, but the fact he always seems to be one step ahead. If he’s not quite indestructible, then he usually winds up in control of all the situations he gets himself into. It’s an impressive skill, especially in such a volatile, ever-changing environment.

His reputation more than impresses one of the local bosses, Nomoto, a head honcho with a penchant for stroking cats, throwing knives, and engaging in other dubious extracurriculars. He checks the new man out and he passes with flying colors gaining a faithful ally in the jovial heavy Minami. Jo’s the kind of insurance you want on your team. It’s a bit like stacking the deck.

However, the film makes full use of a Yojimbo-like gimmick with other token genre tropes tossed in for good measure, including the age-old archetype, the fact that everything and everyone is not as they appear. While he’s ingratiating himself with one side — raking in money by calling in their debts — he falls in with the Sanko gang too.

He meets the man in what can only be the back of a movie house — the black and white movie reels playing during their heated confrontations and tenuous partnership. Because he’s already garnered more than a reputation for his recent exploits and acts of tough-guy bravado. What the odd backdrop suggests is a particular eye for novel setups enriching the actions and the related landscape of characters.

At its best, the sets of Youth of the Beast feel totally disposable allowing characters to decimate them in any number of ways. In tandem, they also devise a plethora of ingenious forms to torture their enemies, from whips to razor blades, implemented in all manner of painful ways, on tongues and fingers. Jo torches one of his target’s hair in the process of extortion for goodness sakes! An image like that is literally emblazoned on your mind’s eye.

Likewise, it represents the call girl world without the consequences of When a Woman Ascends The Stairs; it’s more modern and pizzazzy — commoditized to be easy and delectable — specifically for men. One of the picture’s most startling images follows a female junkie crawling out of her skin only to tumble down the stairs for a fix. Moments earlier she rips the stuffing out of a chair from sheer agony.

Jo is ambushed in the shower by one of the bosses’ mistresses; she, in turn, is looking for “The Sixth Mistress.” It trumps The Third Man by three. If it’s not apparent already, all this is blended into a frenetic stream-of-consciousness plotline never waiting for the audience to comprehend everything before it goes careening somewhere else.

But rather than feeling uncentered or discombobulated, it comes off as all being a part of the wild ride courtesy of Suzuki himself. Suzuki’s never intent on holding the viewer’s hand. He rarely bothers explaining himself, putting all his energies into the outlandishness, which gives way to corkscrew twists and turns as we go barreling through the story with reckless abandon.

There are probably one or two things you don’t see coming and a few you will. Others might defy logic. All the better. His cavalier nature, even his disaffection, makes for more electric entertainment.

More than exemplifying a cohesive piece of storytelling from front to back, Youth of The Beast is made by specific moments — the sequences that feel like singular expressions — standing on their own. There’s something somewhat intoxicating about the trip. Both aesthetically and how visceral the movie dares to go, especially given its roots in the 1960s. The mise en scene — the peculiar flourishes of the art are the heart and soul of the story. Not the other way around.

There is a climax, yes, but the particulars feel inconsequential when it comes to drawing up the sides. All we need is a raucous mob war complete with drive-bys and guns galore with Jo thrown into the action. He does battle with an assailant while suspended by his feet from the chandelier. It sounds hilarious and yet it’s harrowing. What’s more, I’ve never seen anything quite like that confrontation before. It’s different.

The movie never courts any kind of sentimentality, and the way Suzuki blows through his material has a freewheeling vigor and the iconoclastic glee of filmmakers as diverse as Sam Fuller and Luis Bunuel even as he deconstructs the yakuza genre.

There’s something thrilling about watching someone where you don’t quite know what they’re going to do next. With such a small amount of capital, it only goes to show the caliber of the director. Where the continual limitations under any given scenario still make it feel like the skies the limit. He was so good in fact, his studio turned right around and fired him only a couple years later. Suzuki was, as we say far too often, ahead of his time. In his case, it’s true.

4/5 Stars

Tokyo Drifter (1966)


Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter is a paramount attraction of 60s camp packaged in a yakuza   B-film. It opens with highly stylized black and white imagery injected with almost psychedelic shades of color that never again leave the film’s palette. Its setting is Tokyo, Japan — but far different than any Tokyo humanity has actually seen in recent history. As such it does not exist and never has. Only in the mind of the director. It’s a swinging place of ultra-cool yakuza, jazzy vibes, and a fantastical atmosphere. Oddly indicative of the shoestring budget it was hewn from and still somehow invariably engaging.

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We spend much of the film following in the footsteps of our eponymous lead Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a yakuza hitman whose every effort to go straight is being challenged and impeded on all sides. He cannot escape the life that defines him and finds himself continually caught in a web of yakuza gang wars that will not give him a moment’s peace. There are gunfights, brawls, even a bit of swordplay. He has a romantic flame, a sullen nightclub singer who serenades the world with her melancholy tunes, but even she cannot redeem his existence. There are always hitmen either after his life or looking to drag him back into the fray that he threw off.

But going into plot points and character arcs already strays too far from what makes this film enjoyable. There’s often the heightened tension found in many of Sergio Leone’s greatest Spaghetti Westerns here, employing many of the same stylized characterizations. The fact that our main protagonist announces himself through song and whistling strangely feels reminiscent to “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon a Time in the West. But this is a different beast. Rambunctious, chaotic and vibrant as it is.

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Once more Suzuki is gifted in taking the mediocre — a narrative with very little to it — then instilling it with all sorts of energy similar to other inspired mavericks like Sam Fuller. But by the end, he’s transformed the narrative into an incomprehensible bedlam blessed with his own wickedly stylish aesthetic. There are sweet suits and shiny wheels. Nothing feels the least bit realistic. And it’s filled to the gills with surrealist situations conceived out of Suzuki’s own whimsical vision. Still, all the while it’s influenced by pop art and to some degree Technicolor musicals of the 1950s. It’s a sight to be sure, leaving its indelible mark on the b film niche. If anyone says low budget gangster flicks are the dregs of cinema, they’ve obviously never been acquainted with Seijun Suzuki

3.5/5 Stars

Branded to Kill (1967)

branded to kill 1Branded to Kill is the stuff of legend inasmuch as director Seijun Suzuki offered up this wonderfully wacky, perverse, dynamic film and was subsequently dumped by his studio.  At Nikkatsu they accused Suzuki of crafting an oeuvre that made “no sense and no money.” And if we watch it with the eyes of a rational, money-grubbing business mind, there’s a point to be made. Because this film is ridiculous on so many accounts, absurd in plot and action, starring an unlikely cult hero — a silky smooth hit man with prominent cheekbones and a hyper-sexualized penchant for steamed rice.

Its budget and yakuza genre suggest it has no right be remembered as little more than a throwaway action flick–a petty amalgamation of American film noir and James Bond. In fact, that’s probably what the bigwigs at the studio would have liked, but Suzuki worked his own bit of cinematic magic.

If we set the scene everything looks sleek but potentially uninspired. This is your typical everyday hitman movie where each gunman is deadlier than the next, trying to knock off their marks so they can move of the hit list to the coveted  #1 spot. Except it’s all played off satirically. That’s important to note.

From the outset, Goro Hanado is # 3 and he is joined by a drunken, spineless cohort in protecting a client from other assassins. It’s entertaining action that maintains some sense of stylized reality. But soon enough the cutting and jumps in continuity make Branded to Kill into a full-fledged absurdist trip – simultaneously wacky and deadly. Now we’re getting into stranger territory.

branded to kill 4Phase two follows Goro as he flaunts his tireless inventiveness as a hit man. Hiding inside a cigarette lighter advertisement and shooting his target through an adjoining water pipe for good measure. Then the femme fatale Misako slinks into his life and after a botched job, his life is in jeopardy, an unlikely adversary being his wife.  She rightly characterizes them as beasts and their home life is pure chaos.

By the latter half, the film has completely careened off the rails of convention, at times functioning as a widescreen collage of glorious visuals matched with the sweet cadence of sounds and score. Chiaroscuro lighting is pulled directly from the shadowy avenues of noir streets, with the camera, often moving leisurely through modern interiors and human bodies constantly obscured by fountains of water, butterflies or whatever else.

branded to kill 2By now we have the total dissolution of the character we have known as he begins to sink into an all-out state of sniveling paranoia. He finally meets the mysterious number  1 and far from being a tense showdown, it turns into a rather pitiful scenario. They go arm and arm to the toilet, not allowing each other out of sight as number 1 decides how to finish off his hapless foe.The final showdown comes and it’s all we could ask for. Brutal, perplexing and above all undeniably unique – accented with the brushstrokes of an utterly creative mind.

My thoughts thus far feel admittedly disjointed and almost incoherent. I feel like I’m writing chicken scratch crossed with gobbledygook, but that’s the perfect homage to Suzuki’s art. Its aesthetic is hard to comprehend in common terms. Is it a masterpiece? Is it not a masterpiece? I’m not quite sure I can give a clear conclusion. What measuring stick can we hope to use with it? And that’s hardly the point. If you want something immeasurably different–something that will shake you out of the millennial malaise, view Branded to Kill. You might not like it because those Nikkatsu fellows were right. No sense. No money. But there’s more to life, now isn’t there?

4/5 Stars