Criterion released a new collection of action films in 2009 produced by the Nikkatsu film studio in the 50s and 60s, Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir. The set includes the following films: I Am Waiting (1957) directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, Rusty Knife (1958) directed by Toshio Masuda, Take Aim At The Police Van (1960) directed by Seijun Suzuki, Cruel Gun Story (1964) directed by Takuma Furakawa, and A Colt Is My Passport (1967). Each film has some comments by noted Asian film critic Chuck Stephens. These films were considered to be "Borderless" action films (mukokuseki). One aspect of the films I like is that they show what Japan looked like in the 50s and 60s with all the location shots. The series gets progressively better from the first film to the last film.
I Am Waiting is the debut of director Kurahara and stars Yujiro Ishihara as a restaurant manager and former boxer who helps club hostess (Mie Kitahara another familiar face in mukokuseki films) try to escape the clutches of her gangster employer. Yokohoma is the noir stand in for NY in this film that presents a darker brooding Ishihara, who was a film superstar at this point. The protagonist is waiting for his brother to send for him after buying a farm in Brazil, perhaps a stand in for Mexico as the place of escape for Japanese noir.
Rusty Knife directed by Masuda also stars Yujiro Ishihara and fellow top Nikkatsu star Akira Kobayashi, and they play former hoodlums trying to leave behind a life of crime working at a bar. However, they are sought out as witness to a murder and are drawn back into the world of crime. Joe Shishido has a small role as a blackmailer and will become a star under Suzuki.
Take Aim At The Police Van is a film by the most well-known mukokuseki director Seijun Suzuki. This film is more of a detective mystery when a prison truck is attacked and convict murdered. The penitentiary guard on duty (the middle aged Michitaro Mizushima) is accused of negligence and suspended which allows him to get to the bottom of the crime. Stephens point out some of the outre visual shenanigans by Suzuki: the gunman who strokes the rifle's stock lovingly before putting his gum on the scope for safekeeping and the onsen hooker who lurches out of the private show lie St. Sebastian with an arrow stuck in her chest.
Cruel Gun Story by Furukawa stars Shishido as a freshly released ex-con sprung to do a job for a mob boss. So this is essentially a heist story about robbing a an armoreed car carrying racetrack receipts.It seems to owe something to Kubrick's The Killing with its meticulously planned heist. It takes place in the abandoned US Army party town Yamato (my old friend Arie's former place of residence). The double and triple crosses also bring to mind The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
The best film in the series is Nomura's A Colt Is My Passport also starring Joe Shishio. It is the story of a hardboiled hitman caught between two warring yakuza families. It has great spaghetti western tinged soundtrack and takes place on the seaside near Yokohoma as the hitman and his protege try to escape Japan by boat. It finishes with a great and inventive climax.