For some reason, terms like “outlaw director” are the buzz-du-jour when it comes to Japanese directors. You have an annual film series (that also happens to be called “The Japanese Outlaw Masters”) that promises “the wildest, fastest and most uncompromising from the Golden Age of Japanese genre cinema.” Glancing at the assorted trailers of Seijun Suzukia casual viewer can’t help be sucked in by the visual style that slowly morphs from generic studio picture into sparse, acid jazz laden soundtracks or complete oddities like Suzuki’s best known films Tattooed Life, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.
More importantly, these films all came from the Nikkatsu Corporation, who were responsible for launching—despite “firing” Suzuki—the careers of actors like Jo Shishido and Akira Kobayashi, but importantly directors like Shohei Imamura, Toshio Masuda and became synonomous with “Nikkatsu Action Cinema.” This is explored further by critic/writer Mark Schilling’s series No Borders, No Limits: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema, continuing at Japan Society through May. Schilling also wrote the book, which originally served as a companion to the series.
“What really came first was my research for a book on yakuza (Japanese gangster) movies, which made me aware of the Nikkatsu’s studio’s vast genre output in the 1950s and 1960s—at one point Nikkatsu was releasing more than 100 films a year—and how little ’borderless’ action films,” Schilling wrote to me via e-mail for a Q&A originally published in Primetime A&E’s November 2007 issue. He admits Suzuki is the best known director spawned by Nikkatsu, but it is the format that the company would take on and push for its’ future releases: an attempt at mixing Western “cool” with the heavily popular Yakuza stories.
To replace Giri/Ninjo with trumpets, drum beats and number one killers. Schilling’s series came about during his involvement with the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2005, and his book came about as a 100-page catalog covering 16 Nikkatsu classics that included A Colt is my Passport, Like a Shooting Star (aka Velvet Hustler) and The Warped Ones. (A review of the original catalog can be found here by Tom Mes.)
Toshio Masuda’s Red Handkerchief screens Friday, January 18, as it follows a troubled city cop who escapes to the country, but finds his conscious eating at him until he returns to close an unsolved case and pick up a femme fatale along the way. Masuda began as a live-action director, but is best known for his work on the Space Battleship Yamato series. Handkerchief eschews a noir style that could seem strange to a normal audience, but today goes hand-in-hand when compared to the fare of sick slapstick of Takeshi Kitano’s sadistic pranksters or even Kurosawa’s angry slum drunks in Drunken Angel. The series’s best contribution comes from Plains Wanderer (March 14).
“The ’Wanderer’ series is the very definition of the ’borderless action’ style—films that exist in their own world, beyond conventional definitions of East and West, Hollywood and Japanese cinema,” Schilling wrote. “They are to Nikkatsu Action what John Ford movies are to the Western—they sum up the traditions and standards of the genre for many Japanese fans and critics.”
Akira Kobayashi’s Wanderer (Taki) takes the back roads of a Japan that is turning toward to modern production and cities. He comes across towns on horseback and carrying a guitar. He fights the local toughs who pick on the little guy—not to mention this is only a single “episode” of a nine(!) part series that follows Taki through the country, pushing him further and further north as modernization expands.
As DVD and bootlegs progressed, Nikkatsu’s films read like a Bible for the Tarantino-types and those looking to expand their genre awareness. The “outlaw"ness of these directors can be seen in a studio that realized they had made a grave mistake in allowing a talent like Seijun Suzuki to leave—despite they being the ones who forced him out. Almost as an apology, they allowed new talent to run wild and develop their personal strengths, even though it would be through the “B Movie” filter, or by cutting their teeth on a few dozen “Roman Pornos.” But Schilling notes that despite the homages most prominent in American pop culture—the lighting changes of Kill Bill being the most famous—Western audiences wouldn’t appreciate or understand his Kabuki and Ero Guro (“erotic and grotesque”) influences.
“But he was coming from a very Japanese place…They may reference him, but they can’t make a ’Suzuki film.’ No one can, really!”
At the very least, you can see Suzuki’s influence haunt Nikkatsu through the years.
NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s NIKKATSU ACTION CINEMA plays through May at New York’s Japan Society. Films screen only once per month and are screened with English subtitles. Tickets are $10/$7 Japan Society members & seniors/ $4.50 students (first 20 tickets per screening). Purchasing information here. Japan Society is at 333 East 47th Street.
Note: Quick disclosure, I once worked for Double Viking’s Filmwad. And while I won’t speak ill of former employers, there was an in-house policy to rip video clips and re-brand them under the house video player without permission or contacting the original uploader. That said, the same clip is available through a number of posters on YouTube.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.