Few genres are as absorbent as film noir. Science fiction (Blade Runner), horror (Seven), and high school movies (Brick) have soaked up the world-weary, hard-boiled attitudes and atmospherics of Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, Kiss Me Deadly and all the rest. Steeped in French and German influences, American noir was this gun for hire further abroad as well. An excellent new set from Criterion, “Nikkatsu Noir,” shows how the darkness permeated the land of the Rising Sun.

Founded in 1912, Nikkatsu is the oldest of the country’s film studios, most noted by cinephiles for giving the great Shohei Imamura (Vengeance is Mine, The Ballad of Narayama) his start. By the mid-’50s, however, its output needed new blood, and with the success of 1956’s Crazed Fruit found it in ripped-from-the-headlines movies about the country’s causeless rebels. Nikkatsu’s answer to James Dean, Yujiro Ishihara, stars in the set’s first film, 1957’s I Am Waiting, playing a promising boxer who hung up his gloves after killing a man in a bar fight. A club owner who’s put a cabaret singer under his thumb forces Yujiro to put up his dukes as the movie reaches its punchy climax. (The content of these movies encourages you to write like this.) Mie Kitahara, Ishihara’s Crazed Fruit co-star, plays the singer. Atmospherically helmed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, the movie conveys postwar despondency with the country that extends far beyond its low-life waterfront setting; all Ishihara wants to do is leave for Brazil.

The full-frame I Am Waiting yields to shimmering black-and-white “NikkatsuScope” for the remainder of the set, starting with 1958’s Rusty Knife. Ishihara and Kitahara again co-star, this time as a gangland underling trying to go straight, and the documentary producer trying to set him on the right path. It’s not easy: Ishihara has witnessed the slaying of Kitahara’s politician father, and wants justice for the rape and subsequent suicide of his former girlfriend. Filmed with considerable verve by director Toshio Masuda, Rusty Knife shows all of society as somehow corroded, right up to its two-faced town fathers.

The femmes in these films, while misled, are rarely fatale. Leave it to the incorrigible Seijun Suzuki to correct this with 1960’s Take Aim at the Police Van, where the brains and beauty behind a crime syndicate warily allies herself with a prison guard who is sleuthing the ambush of a police vehicle. That action gets the 79-minute movie off to a fast start (at 91 minutes, I Am Waiting is the epic of the set) and the hits keep coming, most memorably a hooker’s demise by a bow to the breast. With gum-chewing assassins and a rock-loving teen girl as a supporting character, Take Aim at the Police Van walks on the wild side—but it’s more restrained than Suzuki’s later Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, movies so extremely stylized he was fired by Nikkatsu and blackballed for a decade. (Rediscovered by Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, whose Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai shows his imprint, the 86-year-old Suzuki has had the last laugh and made films up to 2005.)

I’m not sure a movie made in 1964 can qualify as an “instant classic,” but I knew Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story was a classic the instant I saw it. Very much in the mold of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, this armored car robbery saga is take-no-prisoners entertainment all the way, and if Tarantino hasn’t seen it I fully expect him to rip it off in his next movie. It’s also the truest noir in the set, infected with pessimism as everything goes wrong in a maze of bullet-ridden betrayals. Nikkatsu’s go-to guy for doom-laden melodrama, Joe Shishido, stars as the heist’s fatalistic ringleader.

The jazzy wails of the other films’ scores has been replaced by Morricone-type riffs in Takashi Nomura’s superbly titled A Colt is My Passport (1967), signaling the replacement of noir as a primary influence on these movies. (That they went a bit spaghetti Western is only fair, given that Sergio Leone cribbed A Fistful of Dollars from Akira Kurosawa’s earlier Yojimbo.) Hit man Shishido (whose artificially augmented cheekbones gave him his distinctive look) and a friend team up to eliminate one gang, then another that forms in its place. The dockside action switches to a dusty industrial hell for the amazing climax, as Shishido, toting a golf bag loaded with guns and time bombs, takes on the remnant scum. Nikkatsu would find its next big hits in softcore porn.

Criterion, which has put out editions of Crazed Fruit, Tokyo Drifter, and Branded to Kill, has bundled these films as part of its no-frills Eclipse line, with Chuck Stephens’ tangy essays for each movie the only extras. “Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer,” the packaging promises, and the adventurous will be duly rewarded. More blasts from Nikkatsu’s past would be welcome.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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