Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ Social Media Specialist Marya Gates (@oldfilmsflicker) November is now known as Noirvember among many classic film fans who enjoy watching Film Noir throughout the month and discussing it on social media sites using the hashtag #Noirvember. This month-long celebration of criminal activity, dangerous dames, desperate men and shadow-lined surfaces is coming to a close but before it does I thought I’d highlight a few of the interesting Japanese crime films currently streaming on FilmStruck. If you’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at home this year, it’s a great opportunity to play catch up with a genre I like to call Nippon Noir.
One of the earliest and most interesting examples of Japanese Noir is Snow Trail (1947), an atypical crime picture directed by Senkichi Taniguchi and co-written by Akira Kurosawa now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. In a previous post about the film I wrote:
Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail aka Ginrei no hate (1947) begins with a bang. A montage of shadowy figures and fragmented images bombards viewers during the film’s opening credits while guns fire, alarms ring, windows break, trains whistle and sirens scream. We soon discover that three desperate men (Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Kosugi) have just robbed a bank and in a bold attempt to dodge authorities, they make a dangerous trip to Northern Japan where they hope to lose their pursuers in the snow-covered Alps. None of the men are prepared for the hard climb ahead of them and they sorely lack the survival skills needed to endure a harsh winter outdoors. When they’re forced to seek shelter at isolated ski lodges and in abandoned ranger stations, it only complicates their dire situation. As the stress of their predicament begins to overwhelm them, tensions grow and soon the three outlaws are bickering among themselves. Their shaky solidarity gives way to fear, distrust and unrepentant greed but one man will eventually find bitter redemption amidst the demanding mountains.
This highly suspenseful, genuinely moving and remarkably inventive film marks the screen introduction of many notable talents. Chief among them is 27-year-old Toshiro Mifune who makes his screen debut here and would eventually become one of Japan’s most acclaimed and beloved actors. The film also launched the career of composer Akira Ifukube (Godzilla , The Burmese Harp , Rodan , King Kong vs. Godzilla , Daimajin ) and cinematographer Junichi Segawa who went on to work on a number of documentaries including Antonio Gaudí (1984). In addition, it was the first full-length feature helmed by Senkichi Taniguchi and boasts a script co-written by Akira Kurosawa (Stray Dog , Seven Samurai , Rashoman , The Hidden Fortress ), who was friendly with the director. Taniguchi and Kurosawa were both fond of mountain climbing and occasionally did so together. I suspect that their script may have been a collaborative attempt to bring some of the excitement and enjoyment they felt during their hiking trips to the screen.
The film shares a similar sensibility with notable American Noirs such as He Ran All the Way (1951) and The Desperate Hours (1957), which involve criminals who take shelter with an unwitting family and the snowy setting also recalls On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Nightfall (1957). Despite this, Taniguchi’s film is a wholly unique beast that deserves a much wider audience. It’s only available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck at the moment but it’s well worth seeking out if you’re a subscriber.
My next recommendation is I am Waiting (1957). This outstanding example of Nippon Noir is directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara (The Warped Ones , Intimidation , Thirst for Love ) and involves a mysterious woman who befriends a boxer trying to turn his life around following a brutal fight that left his opponent dead. I described the plot and the film’s American sensibility in an earlier write-up saying:
I am Waiting opens on the dark damp docks of Yokohama where Jôji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) is closing up his Reef Restaurant for the night. As he makes his way over derelict bridges and down twisty rain-soaked streets to mail a letter, he spots a lovely dame (Mie Kitahara) standing by the water’s edge. She’s wet, tired and plainly distraught so kindly Jôji invites her back to his place where he offers her a drink and a warm meal. When the two start talking Jôji coaxes the woman into telling him her somber tale of woe and over the course of the film she eventually learns his sad story as well. She is a once proud opera star who is now forced to sing in dingy nightclubs after losing her voice while being pursued by all manner of lowlifes. He is a one-time boxing champion who accidentally killed a man in a bar fight and was forced to go into the restaurant business. She’s lost all hope but Joji maintains a fragile optimism while waiting to hear from his older brother who traveled to Brazil a year ago in an attempt to buy some farmland where the two siblings could start a new life together. Unfortunately, for Jôji, his brother refuses to answer his letters and may have gone missing along with the family’s fortune. Will the beautiful melancholy girl that mysteriously walked into Jôji’s life be his salvation or his doom?
Viewers will easily spot the influence of early American as well as French Film Noir on I am Waiting. From its jazz-infused score by the brilliant Japanese composer Masaru Sato, to the dark and shadow-lined cinematography of Kurataro, Takamura as well as the surprisingly gritty script by Shintaro Ishihara, almost all traces of old Japan are missing from the film. Signs seem to scream out their information in bold English letters (Reef Restaurant! Bar Keel!) in addition, the characters all sport western clothing while drinking western beverages (Cognac! Coffee!). There are no kimonos or sake bottles in sight. Even the music and sports the main character’s favor (opera over enka and boxing over sumo) suggest a postwar western world where criminals are running amok and guns are easy to acquire.
Fans of other boxing Noirs such as The Set-up (1949) and Killer’s Kiss (1955) should find I am Waiting especially rewarding but anyone who appreciates great-looking crime films loaded with atmosphere should seek out Koreyoshi Kurahara’s work. The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is currently streaming many of the director’s best films including this exceptional Nippon Noir, which you can also find on DVD as part of Criterion’s Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir.
The last film I’ll recommend today is the exquisite Pale Flower (1964). This extraordinary example of Japanese New Wave cinema is directed by Masahiro Shinoda (With Beauty and Sorrow , Samurai Spy , Double Suicide ) and it wears its Noir influences proudly. In an interview with writer and musician Chris Desjardins for Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, Shinoda expressed how he was deeply influenced by the Robert Wise’s crime drama Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) during the making of his film. Pale Flower is deeply indebted to Wise’s vision but it still manages to be one of the most unique and creative pictures to emerge from the Japanese New Wave. In a lengthy 2011 piece I wrote:
The film explores the dark underworld of Tokyo where illegal gambling houses operate until dawn and criminal bosses rule the night. After Muraki leaves prison he immediately heads to a gambling den, which he will return to again and again. The location and stakes may change but the game is always the same. Muraki quickly sets his eye on a beautiful young newcomer named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who projects an easy smile and uses her female charms to disarm her fellow gamblers. She is the only woman who dares to play alongside the all-male clientele and it’s fascinating to watch the old men and scarred criminals squirm with discomfort when she places her bets.
These lengthy card games are microcosms of the wider world that Muraki and Saeko inhabit. Old Japan is collapsing all around them and modern civilization, where women are treated as equals and demand the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts, is starting to infringe on this antiquated game. However, independent women are not the only problem the Yakuza face. New clans are encroaching on old territories and imported drugs will soon become one of the biggest threats to organized crime as well as one of its biggest moneymakers. Saeko’s winning smile, bold behavior and restless spirit appeal to the aging Muraki. He’s not particularly interested in sex or a serious relationship but the bond that he develops with this young female thrill-seeker transcends conventional expectations. It’s also weakened by Muraki’s insecurities because he’s not sure if he’s worthy of Saeko’s attention. These two unlikely soulmates are destined for tragedy and before the film ends Muraki will sacrifice everything to sedate Saeko’s deepest and darkest desires.”
Pale Flower benefits from some brilliant black and white cinematography and bold directing choices employed by Shinoda. The film’s off-kilter framing, languid pacing, decadent narrative and existential themes will appeal to fans of French crime films such as Le SamouraÏ (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and if you enjoy being challenged, Shinoda’s film offers a treasure trove of riches for adventurous viewers. Besides streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, Pale Flower is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.