Looking Forward: Japanese Crime Film (HUM425)

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), directed by Seijun Suzuki evinces a few subtle indications of the subversive film art he would create for (and largely against the wishes of) Nikkatsu studios in the mid- and late-1960s. The Criterion Collection classes this film as a “Japanese noir,” and certainly many of the formal and thematic hallmarks of the noir mode are present here.

TAPV is essentially detective fiction. The protagonist Tamon, suspended from his job as a guard after unknown assailants ambush his prisoner transport vehicle, attempts to discover why the attack occured. Following several winding and intersecting leads, he meets a woman, Yuko, connected with a shady “talent agency” that may or may not be a front for human trafficking. His efforts draw him into a lowlife milieu populated by prostitutes, assassins, and teen delinquents. As with Murder, My Sweet, Tamon’s own motives for unlocking the mystery have more to do with a sense of duty than financial remuneration. He even possesses a humanist ethics, telling Yuko that he believes criminals are human beings like everyone else. This core value moves Yuko, who becomes his key ally, and inevitably, their connection forms the basis of a romantic entanglement.

Pale Flower (1963, d. Masahiro Shinoda) seems solidly set in the Japanese New Wave, moving well beyond TAPV‘s formulaic constraints in terms of an existentialist posture, immaculate and dramatic black and white visuals, and especially its camera work– notably the oscillation between documentary-style street scenes and some highly stylized shots featuring artfully constructed depth of field. Ostensibly a Yakuza flick, PF– like the best genre cinema– surpasses the limits of the gangster film. In one of the final sequences, Muraki, the prison-bound killer, disembowels a white-suited Yakuza don in a high-priced restaurant to the sound of an extra-diegetical musical score, prefiguring (absent the extensive inter-cutting) the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. This murder is a performance for Saeko, Muraki’s blank and beautiful gambling partner, an act of intimacy for the woman who remains an enigma to him to the very end of the film.