10 great Japanese film noirs

Draw the blinds for our 10-film trip along the mean streets of Japanese noir.

5 June 2020

By Matthew Thrift

Stray Dog (1949)

“Do you like mystery novels?” asks the dame under interrogation in Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), “Carr, Queen, Irish – their work is so wonderfully convoluted.” The prison officer shaking her down stubs out his cigarette: “I prefer mysteries set in Japan.”

That the woman being questioned would reference a trio of American crime writers – John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and William Irish – speaks as much to the pervasive influence of American culture in post-occupied Japan as it does to how the world at large, even today, thinks about noir.

In his seminal 1972 essay ‘Notes on Film Noir’, the critic and filmmaker Paul Schrader re-emphasised the notion that noir is best understood in specifically American cultural terms, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and culminating with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

Yet the trademark motifs that come to mind when we think about film noir aren’t exclusive to Schrader’s American canon. “A noir sensibility has been a characteristic of modernity since the end of World War I,” writes noir’s critical authority James Naremore, “a pessimistic, romantic, sometimes critical, usually ‘cool’ attitude about crime and the darker realms of sex and violence… it used unorthodox narration, it resisted sentiment and censorship, it was drawn to the ‘social fantastic,’ it demonstrated the ambiguity of human motives, it sympathised with outsider characters, and it made the emerging commodity culture seem a wasteland.”

One can point to international examples that shared said noir sensibilities as far back as the 1930s. In Japan, the gangster films of Yasujiro Ozu (such as 1933’s Dragnet Girl) flirted with them, but it wasn’t until the postwar era of American occupation that noir took full flight, beginning with a pair of films by Akira Kurosawa. Come the late 1950s, the fledgling Japanese New Wave would fully embrace the crosscultural pollination of US influence, edging its noir exercises into starker modernist territory.

Ultimately, Japanese noir is no easier to define than its western counterparts. Just as American examples encompass westerns, women’s pictures, crime thrillers and detective stories, its Japanese equivalents run a similar gamut, unbeholden to genre and difficult to categorise as such on its own terms. Here are 10 of the best.

Stray Dog (1949)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Stray Dog (1949)

Akira Kurosawa would go on to make a more substantial pair of noir-tinged films with The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low (1963) – the latter adapted from American crime novelist Ed McBain. But it’s the early duo of Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) that, as much as The Maltese Falcon had in the US, ingrained the notion of a specifically Japanese take on noir.

In Stray Dog, Kurosawa’s regular star Toshiro Mifune plays a rookie homicide detective who has his gun pinched on a city bus. Amid a dank summer heatwave, the shamed copper moves in ever-decreasing circles through the city slums as the lost weapon is tied to multiple crimes. Slowly, he closes in on the culprit with the aid of wiser, wearier partner Takashi Shimura. Kurosawa, filming under the Allied occupation, cited Georges Simenon and Jules Dassin as influences here, but his own mature style and facility for propulsive, psychological storytelling is by this point well out of the starting blocks.

I Am Waiting (1957)

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara

I Am Waiting (1957)

In 1954, three years after the Treaty of San Francisco marked Japan’s independence, Nikkatsu – the country’s oldest film studio – restarted production. With Toei (the recently formed upstart studio) monopolising Japanese screens through exclusivity deals, its competitors sought to double-down on emphasising their brand identity. For Nikkatsu, that meant ‘action’ and ‘youth’ films – fast, brutal tales of crime and alienation catering to the hedonistic ‘Sun Tribe’ generation.

Koreyoshi Kurahara was one such proponent, turning out some 15 features for the studio between 1957 and 1966. His debut, I Am Waiting, capitalised on the ascendancy of teen idol Yujiro Ishihara, fresh from star-making turns in Takumi Furukawa’s Season of the Sun (1956) and Ko Nakahira’s sensationally sultry Crazed Fruit (1956). The film’s dockside restaurant setting – into which ex-boxer Joji (Ishihara) rescues a suicidal cabaret singer (Mie Kitahara) on the lam from her yakuza boyfriend – invites The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) vibes, but it’s the retreat from hope into cynicism by the damaged dreamers handcuffed to the past that best signals the anguished essence of noir.

Rusty Knife (1958)

Director: Toshio Masuda

Rusty Knife (1958)

Like most filmmakers at the time, Toshio Masuda was a company man, a young director assigned projects by the studio. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t given creative freedom. As with the B-noirs being churned out in Hollywood in the same era, time, money and promotability were the studios’ key concerns. Nikkatsu by now had a bankable commodity in Yujiro Ishihara, with whom Masuda would go on to make a further 24 films. Rusty Knife was their first collaboration, reuniting Ishihara with his I Am Waiting co-star Mie Kitahara and the earlier film’s screenwriter, his brother Shintaro.

Gone are the seedy nightclub bruisers, replaced by a more organised criminal fraternity that was flourishing under reconstruction all over Japan. “Even action films can say something about the state of the world,” said Masuda. Chaos is Rusty Knife’s prevailing state, at least for the cops – and Ishihara’s reformed hoodlum – who are unable to break a yakuza blockade forged from bribery, extortion, witness intimidation and violence. Social rot, as ever, is a favoured hook for noir to hang its coat.

Intimidation (1960)

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara

Intimidation (1960)

We’re still at Nikkatsu, and back with Koreyoshi Kurahara for this tightly-wound 65-minute potboiler. Much like in the States, Japan was programming a run of shorter ‘sister pictures’ to play under the higher-budgeted ‘A’ features, and these proved fertile ground for directors and actors on the up to (not so subtly) smuggle in examinations of social malaise for their largely working-class audiences.

It’s not hard to imagine something like Intimidation being made at RKO, perhaps with Edward G. Robinson in Nobuo Kaneko’s role as the bank manager destined for better things, forced to rob his own bank to pay off a blackmailer onto his forged loan enterprise. Everyone wants something from everyone else in the film’s morally bankrupt world. But with class divides widening for contemporary viewers, Kurahara is smart enough to punch up, affording a Pyrrhic victory of sorts to the smug manager’s long-suffering underling. It’s about as close as you’ll get to traditional notions of noir in Japanese cinema, with a doozy of a silent robbery included.

Zero Focus (1961)

Director: Yoshitaro Nomura

Zero Focus (1961)

Over to Shochiku, home of the masters – Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi were all mostly based there – to meet studio careerist Yoshitaro Nomura for a slippery, female-centric noir with more than a little of the Hitchcocks about it. Best known for his adaptations of popular crime novelist Seicho Matsumoto, Nomura was playing the Brian De Palma game – playfully reconfiguring Hitchcockian tropes – while said Movie Brat was still at university.

If his excellent Stakeout (1958) took Rear Window (1954) as its starting point, Zero Focus seems to have Vertigo (1958) on its mind – crashing Freudian waves and all. Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) is on the hunt for her ad-man husband, missing after a last trip to the office ahead of promotion to Tokyo. She takes after him, uncovering with increasing resolve a web of occupation-era prostitution that Nomura reveals through a complex scheme of (suitably noir-ish) flashbacks. Fans of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) will lap this one up, but be sure to head for his magnificent The Castle of Sand (1974) afterwards. In lieu of noir, this later film opts for 90 minutes of Zodiac-style procedural, followed by 45 of De Palma-esque melo-romantic maximalism.

Pale Flower (1964)

Director: Masahiro Shinoda

Pale Flower (1964)

Masahiro Shinoda is one of the key filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave, yet perhaps the trickiest to get a handle on. He made films across multiple genres, but with little interest in the kind of thematic or aesthetic consistencies that auteurism relies on. Pale Flower was a breakthrough work, emblematic of the independent sensibilities the New Wave directors maintained within the studio system. On first seeing it, Shochiku were up in arms, delaying the release of Shinoda’s sleek, silvery noir for its “immoral” posturing.

It’s one cool gangster flick, with an iconic pair of leads in Mariko Kaga’s uncanny femme fatale – a gambling addict looking to up her stakes – and Ryo Ikebe’s Maraki, a yakuza negotiating the shifting power balances of a post-occupation landscape. The familiar tropes of noir are in full effect, from the deserted nocturnal corners of Yokohama to the melancholy romanticism of the duo’s platonic codependency. But Shinoda lends a modernist charge through drug-addled dream sequences and the repetitive rituals of the gambling dens the pair haunt, the latter remarkably underscored by the great Toru Takemitsu’s dissonant soundscapes.

Cruel Gun Story (1964)

Director: Takumi Furukawa

Cruel Gun Story (1964)

Even the most casual viewer of 1960s Japanese cinema is going to stumble across Jo Shishido sooner or later – he’s already appeared on our list, lobbed off a train in the opening minutes of Rusty Knife. The distinctive actor, whose hamster cheeks were the result of cosmetic surgery to create a distinctive look, was one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars, winner of a studio contract through its new faces competition and best known for his work with Seijun Suzuki.

Cruel Gun Story sees him as a gangster just out of the pen, recruiting a rogues’ gallery of lowlife misfits to knock off an armoured car at the racetrack. There’s no escaping its debt to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), but Takumi Furukawa winds a clockwork 86 minutes of fedoras, chiaroscuro interiors and tight low-angles. “Everything has to be perfect,” Shishido tells his crew as Furukawa plays out an ideal version of the heist, familiarising us with potential obstructions and setting up anticipation for the inevitable botch job and betrayals to come.

A Fugitive from the Past (1965)

Director: Tomu Uchida

A Fugitive from The Past (1965)

A late-period masterpiece from Tomu Uchida, whose career dates back to the early 1920s, A Fugitive from the Past transposes film noir’s fatalistic tendencies into a karmic register for a singularly Japanese enquiry into crime and retribution. A three-hour saga spanning a decade, it’s divided into three clear acts, respectively following a robber who knocks off his partners following a heist, the prostitute who shelters and later attempts to extort him, and the detective on his trail.

While made at Toei in the mid-1960s, the film begins in 1947 and speaks louder to questions of guilt and shame from Japan’s postwar past than it does to contemporary concerns. It’s a procedural drawn on a vast canvas that feels at once intimate in its humanity and epic in its national and social implications – echoed in the grainy 16mm cinematography blown up to colossal ’Scope widescreen. At its centre is a transformative performance from Rentaro Mikuni as the hoodlum-turned-community-pillar who is unable to claw his way out of the moral abyss.

A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

Director: Takashi Nomura

A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

Jo Shishido reunites with the director who gave him the moniker Joe the Ace and made him a domestic superstar with Quick Draw Joe (1961) – “Third fastest gun in the west!” While A Colt Is My Passport is no western like the earlier film, the harmonica, gunshots and whistled melody of Harumi Ibe’s theme tune suggest a tonal affiliation with the spaghetti western, edging Japanese noir – with a dose of Godardian swagger – from modernism to postmodernism.

Takashi Nomura’s film is firmly in Nikkatsu action territory, with Shishido starring as a fancy – three-piece suit and pocket square – hitman hired to take out a yakuza businessman who stopped playing fair with his partners. Suitably heavy with the fatalism, it mounts a doozy of an action climax, isolating his figures in a barren landscape – and that ‘Scope frame – to bring an existential dimension to the nihilism that trails Shishido like cigarette smoke across his CV. Top-tier Nikkatsu pop.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Branded to Kill (1967)

What would it take for a filmmaker to get himself fired from a studio famed for its experimental provocations and outré depictions of sex and violence? Nikkatsu wanted a follow up to Tokyo Drifter (1966) – a pop-art, modernist explosion of colour and decadence from stylistic fidget Seijun Suzuki. What they got was Branded to Kill, a prismatic hall of mirrors that shattered the tropes of the yakuza film into abstraction.

A précis of the film’s plot is almost impossible, given the way Suzuki strips away any and all exposition. Jo Shishido, in his most iconic role, is a hitman ranked No. 3 Killer. “He tries to become No. 1,” said Suzuki, “but ultimately he fails. That’s the story.” Cue 91 minutes of action as philosophical enquiry, an existentialist noir told with startling stylistic abandon. Nikkatsu didn’t understand it, so fired its director and shelved the film, leading to public protests. Suzuki sued for breach of contract, went to trial and won, but was blacklisted for a decade.