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DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse Series 17 (1 Viewer)

Matt Hough

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Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse Series 17

I Am Waiting, Rusty Knife, Take Aim at the Police Van, Cruel Gun Story, A Colt Is My Passport 

Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
Year: 1957-1967
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/2.35-45:1 anamorphic      
Running Time: 91/90/79/85 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
Subtitles: English
MSRP: $ 69.95

Release Date: August 25, 2009
Review Date: August 17, 2009
 
 
The Films
 
The Japanese studio Nikkatsu was famous for its low budget films of spare design and titillating composition. During the ten year period of 1957-1967, the studio produced a series of small films noir featuring stories set in bars, pool halls, deserted buildings, warehouses, and the streets that made it the Japanese equivalent of a poverty row Hollywood studio like Monogram. Each of the films in this collection is characterized by relatively small casts, action-oriented storytelling dealing with characters not above the law or not unfamiliar with the underworld and its inhabitants. Though you may never have heard of a single one of these films, they pack plenty of entertainment within the confines of their less-than-showy trappings.
 
I Am Waiting - 3/5
 
Restaurant owner Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a disconsolate singer (Mie Kitahara) from killing herself for trying to escape the control of a coarse gangster (Hideaki Nitani) who owns her contract. Joji is himself rather disconsolate owing to a brother whom he’s been waiting to hear from for over a year so he can join him in Brazil and start a new life there. Spurred to investigate his brother’s disappearance, Joji learns that he and singer Saeko share ties with the underworld figure, their lives becoming more intertwined as he searches for answers with her able assistance.
 
Directed compactly by Koreyoshi Kurahara, I Am Waiting covers all of the typical noir environments: bars, docks, boxing arenas, pool halls, and the shadowy, rained-drenched streets, and it transforms from an introspective emotional drama to a fast-paced action thriller the longer it runs. Kurahara’s direction is spare and compact though most of the actors are only of moderate ability apart from Isamu Kosugi who plays an alcoholic doctor who serves as the main character’s father figure and conscience. The barebones look of the film with mostly empty streets and piers fits well into the studio’s budget-conscious status among the Japanese dream factories. It’s not great drama, but it’s a good introduction to the tone and timbre of the films in this set.
 
Rusty Knife – 4/5
 
Two witnesses to a gangland murder remain alive: bar owner Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) and his more immature assistant Terada (Akira Kobayashi), but both have promised tough, snickering crime boss Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) they’ll keep silent. As pressure continues to be put on them by eager district attorney Karita (Shoji Yasui) and TV producer Keiko Nishida (Mie Kitahara) to do the right thing and testify against organized crime, Katsumata and a mysterious Mr. Big get antsy and decide to do away with the both of them.
 
Director Toshio Masuda collaborated on the script with Shintaro Ishihara, and they’ve fashioned a taut, galvanizing crime drama with excellent performances and a more enterprising production than I Am Waiting. Several actors, particularly Ishihara and Kobayashi, get showcase moments to strut their acting chops as they explore the complex characters they’ve been handed. Naoki Sugiura seems to be channeling Richard Widmark with his tough, sniggering mob boss, and there’s a genuine surprise in store once Mr. Big’s identity is revealed in the film’s last few minutes. Masuda has staged a sensational chase sequence with pickup trucks which masterfully intercuts rear projection footage with the actors with live action footage with the stunt drivers.
 
 
Take Aim at the Police Van – 3.5/5
 
After surviving an assault on the bus carrying some convicts back to prison, guard Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) makes it his mission to find out who was behind the gunfire. Before he’s finished with the investigation, he’s uncovered a human trafficking ring, become involved with a slinky femme fatale (Misako Watanabe), and caused the deaths of several other people before uncovering the identity of the person behind the entire shady enterprise.
 
Shinichi Sekizawa’s screenplay is a bit muddled occasionally as to motivations and in allowing characters to undergo personality shifts much too abruptly. Still, Seijun Suzuki’s direction is assured especially in an extended James Bond-like torture-and-murder scene which finds our hero and his girl in a runaway gasoline truck leaking petrol which has been lit on fire by the villains, stunningly composed for the widescreen frame. The final showdown in a train yard is likewise well handled and quite exciting though the postponed revelation of the gangland leader this time around is not such a great surprise. Michitaro Mizushima's performance as the never-say-die prison guard is very compelling.
 
 
Cruel Gun Story – 4/5
 
No sooner is he sprung from prison by his mob connections than master thief Togawa (Joe Shishido) is booked for a big paying heist of an armored truck carrying 120 million yen. With his trusted friend Shirai (Yuji Odaka) as point man, Togawa is also saddled with two less than trustworthy cohorts: a drug addict and a simple-minded boxer who can be convinced of anything. What he doesn’t know is that crime boss Matsumoto (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) hasn’t revealed the entire operation to him, and before all is said and done, there will be many trusts betrayed and many lives lost.
 
A crackerjack caper movie at the start (a sort of low budget twist on The Asphalt Jungle), Cruel Gun Story evolves into a thriller with double and triple crosses landing so forcefully and often that one almost needs a score card to keep everyone’s allegiances straight. Hisataka Kai’s script and Takumi Furukawa’s direction meld into formulating a crackerjack action drama with more bullets per second than almost any movie of the same period. Two performances dominate: star Joe Shishido offers a mesmerizingly tough and tender interpretation of one of life’s noble losers and his former henchman Takizawa (Tamio Kawachi) scores points as his loyal, loving friend.
 
A Colt Is My Passport – 4/5
 
Expert hitman Shuji Kamimura (Joe Shishido) is contracted by the Tsugawa gang to eliminate the head of the rival gang in Nagasaki, the Shimszus. He accomplishes that with little effort, but then he and henchman Shun (Jerry Fujio) must undergo a cat and mouse series of flights toward freedom while the avenging gang members try to take both men out.
 
Another in the series of Nikkatsu “no honor among thieves” thrillers, A Colt Is My Passport slows the pace down quite a bit from the rapid-fire scenarios of the previous three films. While Takashi Nomura’s direction is smooth and steady, it doesn’t have quite the pace and impact of some of the other thrillers in this set. The movie flirts interestingly with the subject of male bonding and the leading female's (Chitose Kobayashi) jealousy that the men share a connection she is unable to attain, but the need to return to the action scenes prevents this topic from getting a fuller, more fascinating analysis. Still, the ingenuity of the man on the run is fun to see accompanied by a score by Harumi Ibe that’s an odd mixture of Ennio Morricone in spaghetti western mode and some Duke Ellington light jazz.
 
 
Video Quality
 
I Am Waiting - 3/5
 
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual manner. As the oldest film in the set, the image quality is the worst by far. Black levels are more milky and gray than black, and there are small scratches and speckles throughout the presentation. Sharpness is slightly above average. The white subtitles on this and all of the films in the set are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
 
Rusty Knife – 3.5/5
 
The film has been framed at 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Blacks are closer to the proper depth than in the previous film, but they still aren’t quite deep enough. Whites are blown out on occasion leaving an unattractive image, but this only happens a couple of times during the running time of the picture. Otherwise sharpness is very good and the grayscale is well represented. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
 
Take Aim at the Police Van – 4/5
 
The film is framed at 2.45:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Black levels aren’t as deep as they could be but are certainly an improvement on the levels from the previous two films. Shadow detail is very fine. Sharpness is excellent in this transfer, and speckles and scratches are not present leaving the viewer with a marvelously detailed, clean image. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
 
Cruel Gun Story – 4/5
 
The film has been framed at 2.45:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Another of the best looking transfers in the set, the disc offers black levels that are good with notably expressive shadow detail. Sharpness is outstanding with plenty of detail in facial features and fabrics to be suitably impressive. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
 
A Colt Is My Passport – 3.5/5
 
The film is framed at 2.45:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Though most of the image in this latest of the five films is solid, there is some stock airport footage that’s really poor, and there are some instances of moiré that momentarily distract. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
 
 
Audio Quality
 
I Am Waiting – 2.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track has consistent hiss that rises in volume from time to time. There’s also some crackle later in the film along with some distortion in the loudest passages of music.
 
Rusty Knife – 3/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track contains both hiss and some flutter but the levels of these audio artifacts are rather lower than in the previous film.
 
Take Aim at the Police Van, Cruel Gun Story, A Colt Is My Passport – 3.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 tracks for these three films are more solid and have decent fidelity. There is some flutter to be heard on each of the tracks but it only happens sporadically.
 
 
Special Features
1/5
 
The Eclipse series of releases don’t typically include bonus features, but each slimline case in the sleeve contains an interesting essay on the movie  and/or the Japanese film industry written by Chuck Stevens.
 
 
In Conclusion
4/5 (not an average)
 
Nikkatsu Noir features five films you’ve likely never heard of before and five films you’ll unquestionably want to visit multiple times . Despite the tendency of Eclipse releases not to have much in the way of digital clean-up and restoration, the transfers in the main are expressive and well above average. Recommended!
 
 
Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC
 

Mike*HTF

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Thanks for the review, Matt!

My most anticipated release this year.
 

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