At the cinematheque: "Red Handkerchief" (Masuda, Japan, 1964)

Daniel Kasman
Masuda’s other film I saw in the Japan Society’s fascinating series NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema, 1967’s Like a Shooting Star, exhibited a level of promising competency and craft with the camera and editing, as well as strong architectural and stylistic attributes, but much of this was squandered by delusions of gravity and seriousness beyond the reaches of its silly plot. Red Handkerchief, released 3 years earlier, exhibits similar grandiose sentiments in a B-level plot, Nikkatsu’s A-level budget and star clearly at odds with a formula more suited for Seijun Suzuki. Ishihara Yujiro plays a cop who shot and killed a suspect who grabbed the gun of his partner and started firing wildly. Despite the life-threatening nature of this incident, Ishihara and his partner are disgraced by the “accidental” death of an “innocent” civilian. This is compounded, as it must be since the moral wrong of the situation seems non-existent, by the fact that Ishihara had just met and presumably fell for the victim’s daughter hours before the gunfight. Outside the metal factory she works at, the girl curses Ishihara where he stands, and Masuda cuts to the thundering clap and fire of the metal factory. The ex-cop retreats to the mountains to dwell on his moral banishment, while unbeknownst to him, his ex-partner becomes suspiciously rich and marries the fatherless factory girl.
A typical story of moral wrongs righted and petty revenge, maybe. And given too much consideration and not enough emotional depth for that consideration, that too Masuda’s film suffers. But even more than Like a Shooting Star, Red Handkerchief is a stylistic triumph. Not knowing the film’s date, I assumed it must have been the late 1960s, somewhere around The Conformist, as I had never seen such self-aware visuals, lessons from Hollywood’s 1950’s Technicolor films and 1940’s noir and applying so knowingly, creatively. This is in terms of a whole range of the production, from the photography by Mine Shigeyoshi (who worked mainly with Suzuki), to Masuda’s deliberate close-ups, camera movement, and rich, luxurious production design. In terms of look, the film often resembles Jean-Pierre Melville’s color films, but without their distance and coolness. They are both informed by the same kind of careful study and inspired application of Hollywood genre stylistics. But Masuda can go beyond this, the film is not just a beautiful looking pastiche of style. To begin with, in 1964 I cannot think of another film that not just looked quite like this, but also that moved with such sophistication and contemporariness in craft.
To give an example, when Ishihara leaves the police station to find the suspect’s daughter, we get a shot of him leaving the interrogation room. I believe the next shot (I could be mistaken in the transition, but that’s not the point) is of a lower-middle class back alleyway, an establishing shot of the alley in which the two will meet. The difference is that the shot starts out as empty space, on the cut there is the alley and the camera slowly tracks backwards with nothing in the frame. A beat or two later Ishihara enters, walking away from the backing-up camera. I have no idea when such an autonomous camera movement was so consciously used so early, to my knowledge Antonioni and Godard were just getting there around this time themselves. The girl runs out of her house to meet the tofu man and Masuda shows us her running in tight medium close-ups shot against a black background, clearly abstractly shot in the studio, rather than the location the previous shot, and the rest of the scene, play out in. Such a style, close to impressionism, but also very aware of itself, should not be ignored. An indication of this film’s A-level budget, along with Masuda’s unusually focused approach, would be the sequence where Ishihara is living in exile, helping build a dam in the snowy mountains. The sequence includes a great deal of wonderful location footage, almost documentary like, including a scene driving down the mountain when Ishihara and a curious detective converse. Masuda shoots a banal conversation in the open air, on the back of a truck, in the mountains, and in the middle of falling snow! Yet Masuda isn’t quite going for pictorialism, nor is he just going for a deeply stylized world. I sense an uncertainty in him, an attraction to these potent aesthetics but an uncertainty on why he is including them in his film, other than their inherent sense of cinematic interest. It may in fact be part of Masuda’s desire to invest a flat plot with seriousness, as the direction and the visuals connote care, consideration, and beauty, yet are not sufficiently unified or directed to invest this flatness with that seriousness. Masuda seems to have the skill enough to imply, but not enough to evoke. I would love to see a work of his that owned up to the thinness of the material and used the director’s obvious talent as a filmmaker (though not necessarily as a great one) to really jazz it up, break it free and give it something special.
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