Mt. Fuji in the background is House of Bamboo's introductory image, snow-capped and serene, a travelogue shot; then, a few moments later, the same mountain is viewed from the vantage point of the scene of a crime by a ground-level camera, framed through the outstretched feet of a murdered soldier: Samuel Fuller in Japan, like tabloid ink sprayed on kakejiku scrolls. Tokyo in 1955 is noticeably the same one filmed concurrently by Ozu and Naruse, but it's also something of an open city, the war a fresh memory and the American Occupation fresher still, with glimpses of the wharfside shanties—anxious worlds barely afloat—Nagisa Oshima would explore in The Sun's Burial. Into it stomps agent of mystery Robert Stack, who's such a truculent Yank that, rather than taking in the rooftop rehearsal of a Noh troupe or the awe-inspiring tracking shot that captures the CinemaScope sprawl brimming with movement, he merely barks "Does anybody speak a little English?" Fuller, on the other hand, is alert to the crossroads of tradition and modernity in which this combat film (disguised as an exotic policier) is set, pointedly balancing Stack's tentative romance with a widowed "kimono gal" (Shirley Yamaguchi) with his submerged romance with the coolly vicious head of a racketeering gang of ex-GIs (the great Robert Ryan). Like the stately fan dance that suddenly segues into a jitterbugging shindig, the film's portrait of a ruthless, businesslike crime system is a wicked fusion of America and Japan that's contrasted with the protagonist's redemptive interracial affair, and an example of the iconoclastic filmmaker's ribald eye for cinematic collisions of characters and forms. A flurry of pulp vibrancy later mined by the Nikkatsu sagas of Seijun Suzuki and Koreyoshi Kurahara (with aspects further expanded in Fuller's The Crimson Kimono and Underworld, U.S.A.), it's a dazzling collection of screens brought down and lifted up and, above all, torn open—as befits an auteur-agitator forever bent on slamming together viewer and action, the most startling moment has the main character being slugged through a wall of rice paper and landing at the feet of the audience of gangsters watching from the other side.
New York's Film Forum is showing House of Bamboo August 27 - September 1, 2011.