Here’s an essay and a collection of films I wrote on the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu and the series of films it made during the Sixties and early Seventies. Hope you find a few hidden gems in here you would have never have seen otherwise. Couldn’t have written it without the amazing theorists and authors listen at the bottom
Dark shadows, youthful sensibilities, deadly Gangsters, modern idealism and foreboding film noir atmosphere. These are the characteristics one sees in the films of the Nikkatsu studio during the late Fifties and in to the Sixties. The films Nikkatsu produced during this time were elemental sums of all genres, mixed in to a hybrid version of B-grade films. They contracted Japan’s rising new filmmakers and were used to great effect. Suzuki Seijun, Takashi Nomura and Takumi Furukawa were all able to turn out quota quickies to hone their skills in which they would be able to utilize later on in their careers. This essay will divide up the many aspects of Nikkatsu films’ characteristics; from Film noir, to avant-garde and experimental to the influences of the French nouvelle vogue. Nikkatsu sums up a conglomerate of Western influences in an attempt to drive the Japanese film market in to a new and more youthful terrain. One that would solidify the Japanese film industry as more than just art house fair but of a sort of pop-art mentality.
Before delving in to a discussion of the influences spread across these films a short background and history of the studio from their beginnings to their status now should be discussed. Nikkatsu was originally established in Tokyo in 1912 (Schwarzacher, B2). Before the war their foremost style was realist cinema and directly after the war directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Imamura among many others worked under their production (Ibid). It wasn’t until the appearance of Yujiro Ishihara and his superstar rise to fame during the 1950’s and 1960’s (Raine, 207) that Nikkatsu saw a chance for change in their formula. It was during this boom that nearly one billion tickets were sold a year to Japanese audiences ( Schwarzacher, B2). It was the heyday of entertainment and art in Japan. It could even be called a resonance of pop art and modern ideals. It wasn’t until the inclusion of television around the seventies that popped the bubble that Nikkatsu was flying high on. They had to concentrate on quickly producing Roman pornos or ‘pink films’ in order to financially stay afloat (Schwarcacher, B4). Nikkatsu has since found another renaissance in Japanese film culture. The academy award winning filmed Departures was produced in conjunction with Nikkatsu under Namco Ltd. Who bought them in 1997 (Ibid). It was, however, during the late fifties and sixties that this essay will discuss; the height of Nikkatsu’s distinct style and youthful assertion with a new Japanese audience.
American Influence after the War:
The Postwar film market in Japan was a sullen landscape filled with a hunger for new and more exciting films. Japan had once again risen to a respectful acceptance on an international scale with Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi’s films. However, the culture was changing. The children of the war and those born after were beginning to come of age and were wanting films they could call their own. America’s influence after the war is hard to underestimate. The culture of American films, music, magazines and celebrities had burrowed their way in to the youth of Japan. The anti or sensitive heroes of 1950’s American films harbored an interesting influence in the iconic persona Inshihara Yujiro’s dandy hero (Raine, 207). No longer a tough guy, Yujiro’s image was more sensitive and in touch with his body than his mind (Raine, 211). Yujiro’s influence was felt in entertainment magazines and he was a soaring star by 1958 (Raine, 213). Take anther example of Joe Shishido, the actor of Seijun’s film Branded to Kill (1967), Nomura’s A Colt is my Passport (1967) and Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964). His character and persona were much like Yujiro’s was only a few years earlier. They were men in touch with the physicality of their body and not the importance of the mind. Japanese films were starting to take a stand against the more sensitive in-touch actors that their American counter parts were sending to their shores. They were defying the Hollywood norm. Yujiro called himself something of an anti-Brando (Raine, 207). The films were challenging the censorship boards on both shores. Many of these Japanese films had very limited or art-house showings in the States. Much like ATG’s early years playing in underground cinemas and cult theaters (Mirasawa, 21). The influence that American Postwar culture had on Japan by the late Fifties and in to the Sixties was met with a more defying attitude. They were concentrating more on the body than the mind and were tapping in to the experimental culture of youth in Japan.
Influence of Film Noir:
Experiencing only a few Nikkatsu films one can see a great Film Noir aesthetic flowing through their productions. By the 1960’s the term “Film Noir” had not yet garnered the reputation and recognizable presentation that it does now. However, the films of Goddard and fellow nouvelle vogue filmmakers had began to pay tribute and deconstruct American genre pictures and turn them in to something one could call pop-art. The term Film Noir was coined by the French and made its way from film to film until its style of conveying fatalistic narratives, femme fatales, chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus photography was felt in many films from black and white to Technicolor (Silver and Ursini, 11). Chuck Stevens names I am Waiting (1957) as the start of Nikkatsu’s run of great film noir / genre bending theatrical experiences. As the movie starts one can see the influence of American film noir. The rain drenched atmosphere, the suicidal female role and the male hero driven to a fatalistic ending. Continuing on to the Sixties when Nikkatsu had begun their true run of great B-films. A Colt is my Passport is the epitome of their reign outside of Seijun’s films of a more avant-garde venture (Rayns, 26). The title itself resembles many crime novels written in the thirties that had so much of an effect on film noirs in America in the forties (Silver and Ursini, 12). The postwar influence had not just been limited to the defying sensibility of acting norms accepted in America films but also the American film noir; which was met with much readily acceptable inclusion in to their film making styles. Though the acting was tapping in to youth culture in Japan at the time, the style they were borrowing from was coming from the fatalistic film noirs made in America during and after the war.
Influence of the French New Wave:
“Too much cinema destroys cinema” (Douchet, 16). So says Jean Douchet in his article about the influence of the French new wave . In French cinema of the sixties the need to simply represent reality was not seen as artful cinema. Without a style, cinema could never really soar (Ibid). These effects and hybridity that New wave films from France were utilizing were not only felt in their home country but around the world. Even making their way to Japan’s shores by the early Sixties. One only has to look at many Seijun films like Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter (1968) to see the avant-garde and pop art aesthetic used in its presentation and narrative (Rayns, 27). Both of those Seijun films use a gangster (Yakuza) themed narrative, filled with murder, violence, chases and sex. However, its form is a hybrid of experimental and film noir much like the Breathless (1960) by Goddard or any number of New wave classics. The inclusion of sex as apparent in Crazed Fruit (1965) or Branded to Kill created an aura of sexuality quite rare in films and was as much a defiance of censorship as it was a sexual awakening taking place in the youth of Japan and many other civilized countries (Anderson, 265). The aesthetic is not realistic but makes one question the certain aspects of living and what they are watching. It makes a viewer aware that they are watching a film (Douchet, 17). The French nouvelle vogue could not have been possible without the American influence of films that came in after the war and American Film noir could not have been possible without the French, who coined the term. And neither of those could have been possible without the European and more specifically, German expressionistic influence that came in during the early thirties (Silver and Ursini, 10). Nikkatsu’s genre bending B- films of the Fifties and Sixties held influence from many international sources and yet retained a cultural significance with the youth culture under a new rising sun.
Influence of Avant-Garde and Experimental Cinema
Avant-garde films were films of the twenties and thirties in which Europeans were playfully interrupting and problematizing the everyday aspects of urban life. They were pointing out the artificiality of linear narratives and reality as a cinematic norm (Miyao, 199). Experiencing a few scenes in Branded to Kill like the montage of sequences of torture by fire or any of the chase sequences and one has a feeling that the sequencing of shots and editing are not mainstream or linear in any regard (Miyao, 200). The structure is disorienting and lends itself to the nightmarish feeling and tone the film is trying to express (Miyao, 201). Tokyo Drifter is the same even though it was shot in bright all encompassing Nikkatsuscope (Cinemascope Technicolor) and has a pastel canvas to which its characters wear without any feeling that they appear distasteful or tacky. The structure of many of these Nikkatsu films are not filled with the same American narrative conventions as other international flare. They are filled with a more playful and self-aware editing style similar to avant-garde films of the twenties and thirties and later re-utilized in the films of the French new wave (Ibid). There was also a heterosexual overtone that lent itself to a homological masculinity in many of the Nikkatsu films of the time; usually found in the finale of the stories (Raine, 225). This goes beyond the mainstream narrative stages so widely accepted in North American films and established a new form of masculinity that represented a male effeminacy only hinted at in the more Hollywood films staring Brando or Clift. These were experimental aspects that wanted to push new grounds, even when many of the filmmakers denied making these decisions consciously.
Influence of Genre Films:
The influence of genre films like the Western, Gangster or cult / drive-in film is evident in many Nikkatsu films. Little has been written of these genre films having a direct influence on Japanese cinema, especially as specific as the Nikkatsu studio. Looking at Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958). A film which its very title evokes the sound of a western or adventure picture. By the end of many of these Nikkatsu films the main character; whether he was an anti-hero, passive aggressive protagonist or reluctant knight would always face the ultimate bad guy, a man usually head of the organization that had been tormenting the protagonist and his love interest. By the end of Rusty Knife, I am Waiting, or Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) one witnesses what seems to be the formulaic ending for a picture dealing in gangster ideologies. The Western showdown among modern day hoods. The characters in these films can be attributed to many of the heroes bound by Westerns in the states. They have codes and are usually ruthless gunfighters or vicious badmen. By the end of Seijen’s Branded to Kill the hero finds himself literally in a boxing ring with his final enemy. They have a final gunfight guided by their morals codes of conduct. Since these Nikkatsu films share just as much influence with experimental avant-garde films as with genre pictures like the Gangster picture and their aesthetic visuals of a film noir; the ending to many of these films harkens back to the same argument all of these categories share with Nikkatsu films… They are in a sense a hybrid or all of these influences.
A Hybrid of Influence:
Finally it comes to the answer as to what were Nikkatsu studios truly trying to accomplish in their films of this time? Like many answers in film and art, there can never truly be a clear representation of one influence, one style or one genre. The explanation is best suited to be described as a hybrid. The Nikkatsu films are as much film noirs as they are experimental; and are as much American homage as they are culturally specific representations of youth culture. The influence is not just one, it couldn’t be, given that cinema had existed for nearly seventy years before these films came to be. Film is influenced from all that came before, whether it be conscious or unconscious. The Films are as much film noir influenced from European cinema in a pre-war world and used as the primary narrative front runner in many of the films as they are avant-garde structured movies (Miyao, 199). The French new wave were self-aware genre studies of American film. They were made by men who found awareness in the study of mainstream cinema as sophisticated and rooted with many intricate studies of art and humanity (Douchet, 16). The films made in Japan by Nikkatsu studios were as much a study (albeit a more playful and less theoretical study) as the French nouvelle vogue.
In conclusion, these films made between the late 1950’s and in to the late 60’s were calling cards to cinematic discourses of the past and, at the same time, addresses of the modern Japanese audience. An audience beckoning for something fast moving, jazzy and action packed. The films delivered but also delivered on something more layered. They had a dark underbelly, a fatalistic point of view. Fatalism has always been attributed to Japanese society since before the war. After World War II that fatalism became a culturally specific stereotype through out the world. The Nikkatsu produced films showcased this fatalistic attitude through their male body-minded protagonists (Raine, 206). With a country struck by atomic destruction the films showcased a hero that never really wins, with a love interest who never really lives happily ever after. The gunfighters of Westerns past no longer wore white as a representation of chivalry but for aesthetic presentation. The film noir was alive and well in the narrative discourse of almost all of Nikkatsu films at this time. They were perfectly suited for the cultural attitude passing through the modern audiences in Japan. Experimental avant-garde cinema would hit one of its hey-days in the sixties with the emergence of modern art (something film and filmmaking would play an intricate part in). This hybrid identity and incorporation of all of these factors make a series of films by very talented and young (at the time) filmmakers fascinating studies in film. They hold a precise place in the cinematic history of Japan and the genre pictures of world cinema.
Anderson, Joseph, I. and Richie, Donald. “Long Shot”. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (expanded edition). Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey. Pp. 259 – 300.
Douchet, Jean “The French New Wave: Its Influence and Decline” Cineaste – America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema 24:1 (December 1998): pp. 16-18.
Hirasawa, Go. “ATG’s Early Years and Underground Cinema”. Pp. 17-26.
Myao, Daisuke. “Dark Visions of Japanese Film Noir: Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill (1967)” in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts eds. Alastair Phillips and Julien Stringer .New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 193-204.
Rayns, Tony “Deep Seijun” Sight and Sound 16:7 (July 2006): pp. 26-28.
Raine, Michael. “Ishihara Yujiro: Youth, Celebrity, and the Male Body in Late 1950’s Japan” from World and Image in Japanese Cinema, Washburn, Dennis & Cavanaugh, Carole ed(s). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K. Pp. 202- 226.
Schwarzacher, Lukas “Spotlight: Japan: Nikkatsu at 90: Studio Returns to Form After Seeing Softer Days” Variety 388:5 (16 September 2002-22 September 2002): pp. B2, B4.
Silver, Alain & Ursini, James. Duncan, Paul (Ed.). Film Noir. Taschen: Los Angelas. Pp. 10-12.Read less