Noir City: Day 3

Day 3 was all Japanese 1960s gangster films that also crossed over into noir. I have a long-standing love for Japanese gangster/detective films generally; there is something about the style of these, the way they break the conventions of Japanese propriety while still exploring Japanese mores, that I find extremely compelling. So three of these films, of wildly different tone and style, was really a feast.

A Colt is My Passport: This film is fairly famous in the U.S. but somehow I’d never encountered it before. It’s a moody, atmospheric story of a hitman’s existential challenges that also contains a couple of the most wildly-imagined shootouts I’ve seen. A hitman (the legendary chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido, a.k.a. “Joe the Ace”) is commissioned to take out the boss of a rival gang, but the way he chooses to do it angers his own gang as well as the rivals. When their escape plan falls apart, he and his apprentice are sent to a small seaside town to hide out until things cool off, unaware that agreements are underway that will make them collateral losses in a larger plan. They find unexpected allies in the truckers and ship workers, as well as a young woman with a story of her own.

The story here is fairly straightforward; the joy is all in the telling. The film synthesizes a number of other film elements of the time, including nouvelle vague camerawork and story structure, spaghetti western blocking and closeups as well as music (love the flamenco-flavored jazz on the soundtrack), and the “doomed protagonist running out of time” conventions of American noir, all expressed with uniquely Japanese style. The way all of the gang members show up everywhere in sharp suits, no matter the setting, emphasizes Japanese propriety and the importance of role and status. The use of many natural elements like birds, insects, and the waves and wind in the hitman’s decisions call to mind aspects of classical Japanese poetry and Shinto. And the final confrontation, rightly notorious, is over the top, absurd, and yet perfectly in tune with the rest of the film.

Is it noir? It’s noir enough for my purposes. The overall tone is right, and the sense of racing to beat impending doom along with betrayal certainly fits. Even Mina, the woman who brings her own backstory to her interactions with the gangsters, is well in line with the tradition of complex noir dames, including holding on to her agency and refusing to be intimidated. I might not have considered this a noir film if I’d seen it outside this context. But in this context, it’s a great fit.

Branded to Kill: This was the film that made be bounce and clap my hands in glee when I saw it in the listing for this year’s Noir City. I’m an unabashed fan of the deliberate chaotic weirdness of Seijun Suzuki’s films, and my introduction to his work was Tokyo Drifter, so seeing another gangster pic from him, in this context, was a joy. And it also meant introducing my spouse to Suzuki, on a big screen, which couldn’t be better.

There is theoretically a plot to this but it’s not all that important. Joe Shishido is our star again, and again playing a hitman, though this time far more dramatically than in the previous film. There’s a framework of a legendary “ranking” of hitmen with everyone desiring to be No. 1. And there’s an instigating incident when our protagonist encounters a mysterious woman who hires him to carry out a highly specific, absurdly difficult hit. But everything around that is just surreal, delightful weirdness.

There’s a hugely dramatic story surrounding the existence of this film, built on the notion that Suzuki didn’t have the resources to make a coherent, saleable movie, and ended up being fired for his inability to deliver. But c’mon. There’s nothing unintentional in this film, and Suzuki always did just what he wanted to do. There’s a lot of deliberate surrealism, timelines broken out of all coherence, avant garde camera work, and over the top performances. It’s highly (almost comically at points) symbolist, and it includes elements I’ve seen in other Suzuki films referring to the conventions of traditional Japanese theater styles. And sometimes it’s just funny and dumb, because it can be. All films about hitmen are fundamentally existentialist and wrangling with the presence of mortality, which is something they have in common with many typical noir concepts. Very few such films are as deliberately outlandish as this one, though.

Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. I find Suzuki’s films exhilarating in their weirdness, even when they don’t totally work (which is often, and which this one doesn’t in several points). There is real joy in watching an artist throw out all expectations and make something weird; and while you might not like or agree with Suzuki’s choices, he was always very good at what he was doing even if the result was chaos. He’s one of the best examples of an artist who understands his form well enough to break the hell out of it. You should finish a Suzuki film alternately laughing manically and with a headache from the bizarreness.

Oh yeah, and it was a successful introduction for my spouse. At multiple points I caught him grinning and giggling gleefully. So there will be a trip to Scarecrow Video for Tokyo Drifter and Pistol Opera, at minimum, in the near future.

Pale Flower: Going from Suzuki’s chaotic existential carnival ride to the quiet, measured melancholy of this film was a big shift; but it was also an excellent demonstration that the genre can contain so many styles. Another hitman story, another mysterious woman, another reckoning with mortality, this time in a way that asks the viewer to travel into the loneliness of this life.

This time our hitman is recently out of prison for a previous killing. In the time he’s been away his gang has formed an alliance with the gang he killed a member of, which leaves him uncertain of where he fits in. Drifting into a gambling session, he encounters a young woman who bets recklessly and intrigues him with her sensation-seeking approach to her existence, even as he struggles to figure out the meaning of his own life.

There’s an unexpected delicacy to this film, even though there’s nothing delicate in the story or characters. Every moment feels achingly evanescent, framed in gorgeous use of light and shadow and camerawork that emulates the way people look at each other and around them. The soundtrack builds the music on the sounds of the actions onscreen, like the clicking of gambling tiles and the betting call of the dealer, the rhythm of city trains and cars on city streets, the actions of people eating and drinking. The performances are measured and slightly opaque; we aren’t meant to know exactly what the characters are thinking, and it contributes to the sense of loneliness that suffuses the film. Despite this, I didn’t find it depressing or nihilistic; it’s more of a meditation on how we find meaning in our existence, and how we deal with the consequences of our choices. This is a genuinely lovely expression of this eternal search, and an essential noir concept.

This was an unreservedly excellent day of screenings, and gave me new ways of thinking about the idea of noir.

With all three films being mid-1960s, I didn’t feel right going with the vaguely late 1940s to mid-1950s style that I often default to for this event. But I don’t really do 1960s; it’s a style that doesn’t especially appeal to my aesthetics and I am decidedly not built for the lines of it. After a little bit of image research and some digging in my closet, I figured out I could do an approximation, though I’ll allow it’s not my favorite among my Noir City outfits.

Dress: Target
Tights: We Love Colors
Shoes: Earth brand “Estrella”
Scarf: Vintage, hand me down from my mother
Necklace: Vintage, purchased from a vintage store in Asheville NC in 1986
Earrings: Victorian Trading Co (of all places)
Headband: I think it’s Goody and probably purchased from a drugstore or Fred Meyer
(I made some small efforts at poufing up my hair, but I was just not up for the heavy backcombing that a true bouffant would have required)

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