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 ’50s and into the ’60s. 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.
From Film noir, to avant-garde and experimental cinema to the influences of several other world cinemas (including American and French new wave), Nikkatsu sums up a conglomerate of mostly 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 fare, but of a sort of pop-art mentality.
Where does Nikkatsu stand now though? During the ’70s and ’80s Nikkatsu dove into the world of “pink” films in order to turn a profit, which can only be described as pornographic or extremely exploitative movies. No longer could they turn out atmospheric films filled with dark themes and tonal precision. However, Nikkatsu has since bounced back in a big way, producing and distributing everything from prestigious historical dramas to the most extreme films of a midnight madness program.
Take for instance two examples of recent films produced by Nikkatsu: Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe and Lee Sand-il’s Unforgiven, a remake of the Clint Eastwood film.
In a futuristic, alternate-world Tokyo, the city is made up of ghetto slums and nightclub playgrounds where gangs of wayward youth rule the streets. The city is carved up into ‘hoods, and the crossing of territorial lines quickly leads to riots and rumbles. On the turf ruled by the savage Yakuza Big Buppa (Takashi Miike regular Riki Takeuchi), the simmering tension is about to boil over into all-out war. The film is absolutely unrelenting in its audacious style, mixing something like Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo and The Warriors. Director Sion Sono chose to cast real rappers, tattoo artists and stunt performers in many of the main acting roles. Remember, this is the guy who directed Why Don’t You Play In Hell? and that gives you a pretty good idea what you’re in for.
Don’t let the extreme nature of many of Nikkatsu’s films discourage anyone from seeking out some of the more somber, meticulously precise films. Just last year, they distributed a remake of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning film starring Ken Watanabe in the Eastwood role (fitting, since the two worked together on Letters From Iwo Jima). The film is patient, melodic in its silences and acts as an amazing example of remaking a film by both capturing the themes of the original while recapitulating both the overall tone to fit another setting designed for a new audience, and in this case, an audience in a different county.
Both of these films are strong examples that the studio has been able to bounce back time and again through its 100 year history as Japan’s oldest film studio. Nikkatsu has a long tradition of mixing genres, most fervently were their ability to combine the crime (or film noir) aesthetic of so many American films and transpose them into something refreshingly authentic to Japan.
Experiencing only a few Nikkatsu films one can see a great film noir aesthetic flowing through their productions. By the 1960s term “film noir” had not yet garnered the reputation and recognizable presentation that it does now. Jean-Luc Godard and fellow nouvelle vague filmmakers began to pay tribute and deconstruct American genre pictures, turning them into something one could call pop-art. Film noir 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. Chuck Stevens (an expert on Nikkatsu’s storied history) cites 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 ’60s, 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 nature. The title itself resembles many crime novels written in the ’30s that had so much of an effect on film noir in America in the ’40s. The post-war influence had not just been limited to the defying sensibility of acting norms accepted in American films, but also the American film noir, which was met with readily acceptable inclusion into their filmmaking 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.
But what were the films of Nikkatsu studios truly trying to accomplish? 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. Film is influenced from all that came before, whether it be conscious or unconscious, and cinema had existed for nearly seventy years before these films came to be. 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.
If this article happened to spark an interest in either Japanese film (in particular, the films of Nikkatsu studios) or film noir, I urge everyone to read Tony Rayn’s article about Suzuki Seijun from Sight and Sound magazine titled “Deep Seijun,” read Lain Silver and James Ursini film noir books or Daisuke Myao’s Dark Visions of Japanese Film Noir.
Images: Nikkatsu Corp., Warner Bros.