Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nikkatsu Noir: I AM WAITING (1957)

To be specific, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) is waiting for word from his brother who left Japan for Brazil a year ago to purchase land. Once the brother confirms the purchase, Joji's going to close down his Restaurant Reef diner and join him in South America. Until then, Joji sees no risk in striking up a conversation with a young woman standing pensively, almost as if contemplating suicide, on the dock. He invites her back to the diner for an after-hours bite to eat, and she tells him that she thinks she just killed a man. He notes that she doesn't know for sure (and we see a flashback showing that she struck the man a good blow on a head, but not necessarily a fatal one) and invites her to stay overnight (chastely, of course) and wait for the morning papers to see what really happened. That overnight stay turns into a waitress job for Saeko (Mie Kitahara, later Mrs. Ishihara).

Kurataro Takamura's cinematography achieves some classical noir effects, especially the fence-shadows across Yujiro Ishihara's back.

Time passes and Joji waits, ever less patiently. If he has issues, so has she. She apparently didn't kill the guy, but she has a hangup: she was a classically trained singer who tried out for opera, but became "a canary who can't sing," or at least can't anywhere but in an American-style cabaret from which she ran away, violently breaking her contract. In a way, she's waiting for something to happen as well. Things really start to happen when Joji gets all his letters back from Brazil; they were undelivered because there's no such person as his brother in the country. At the same time, Saeko (or is that Reiko's?) employer aggressively reasserts his right to her vocal services. That would seem to end things between Joji and Saeko, except that his investigation into what happened to his brother brings him to her cabaret....

Joji sees Saeko's true face at the nightclub -- or does he?

Koreyoshi Kurahara's thriller is the first film in Criterion Eclipse's Nikkatsu Noir series, which I rushed to seize when Barnes & Noble announced its latest 50% off sale on Criterion discs this week (the sale ends on Nov. 24, by the way). Nikkatsu apparently had the initiative in crime cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, before Toei took over (thanks to Kinji Fukasaku) in the 1970s. Seijun Suzuki was Nikkatsu's star pupil in posterity's eyes, and he's represented here by 1960's Take Aim at the Police Van. But first things first.

In his liner notes for I Am Waiting, Chuck Stephens notes that the Nikkatsu Noirs are, to a considerable extent, youth films as much as crime films. Ishihara (brother of a prolific screenwriter and future politician) was one of the "Sun Tribe" of young movie stars who were probably equivalent to James Dean's generation in Hollywood, embodying rebellious youthful vitality. While Waiting looks like a throwback to the Hollywood Forties to these American eyes, in the Japanese Fifties the iconography of noir, not to mention the English language, clearly represented novelty to young audiences. Joji doesn't seem to cater to foreigners, yet his diner has an English name, and there are English translations of restroom signs and other details all over this movie's cityscape. Stephens says that Nikkatsu Noir aimed for a cosmopolitan or "borderless" style, and Waiting proves him right. I think I saw one woman in a kimono in the entire picture, and apart from the emigration angle this could just as well be an American noir, and a halfway decent one at that.

Just as there's more to Saeko than meets the eye (though she never rises, if that's the word, to femme fatale status, but remains sympathetic), that's true for Joji too. He's the archetypal boxer who killed a man, albeit in a bar fight instead of in the ring. Once a promising welterweight, now he's running a modest diner that attracts other distressed people, including a drunken doctor who helps out with the exposition. Brazil represents escape from his past, and he's waiting not just for news of his brother but for his life to restart. The movie gives him a way to vicariously exorcise his demons by creating a parallel, almost mirroring plot thread. He'll learn that, just as he killed a man with his bare hands in a bar fight, his brother was beaten to death in a bar by gangsters who'd cheated him out of his money for the Brazil trip. By confronting the killer in a rough climactic nightclub fistfight he avenges his brother and expiates his own guilt for the man he killed.

I Am Waiting isn't really violent by future Japanese crime standards, but the final fight scene gives Ishihara and Ken Hatano quite a workout.

I Am Waiting is an effective, atmospheric crime film with appealing performances by Ishihara and Kitahara. Stephens describes it as a "masterwork," and justifies its inclusion in the Eclipse collection by arguing that it defined the "borderless" genre. I want to see the other four films in the set before I give Waiting such laurels; at first glance it's almost too much like an American noir for me to evaluate it as a Japanese film. But it's definitely good stuff, and anyone who enjoys the American films or noirs of all nations should appreciate this one.


Shonen King said...

Seems like a cool film. Nice review. I've seen every kaiju film. It's fun to start appreciating other genres of Japanese film.

Sam Juliano said...

Samuel, I promise I will come back to this soon. I just purchased the Nikattsu Noir set (Barnes and Noble 50% off sale) a few days ago and I will definitely view this film, for which you again appear to have written a fabulous review for.