Friday, December 4, 2009

Nikkatsu Noir: RUSTY KNIFE (1958)

The director is different, but the second film in Criterion Eclipse's Nikkatsu Noir collection shows some consistency in the work of screenwriter Shintaro Ishihara, who co-scripted Rusty Knife with director Toshio Masuda. It has in common with I Am Waiting not just stars Yujiro Ishihara (the writer's brother) and Mie Kitahara, but a particular doubling approach in which two storylines mirror one another, metaphorically reflecting on each other. Given the fatalism of noir, this doubling or echoing of story details seems like a valid approach to the genre.

This time around, Ishihara the star is Tachibana, owner of the little Camarade Bar ("It means buddy," someone explains) and an ex-con who served time for stabbing to death the man who raped his girlfriend -- who hung herself out of shame. Like Ishihara's character in I Am Waiting, Tachibana is trying to make a fresh start, this time by keeping his nose clean and steering clear of cops and criminals alike. Unfortunately, for all the talk about two separate worlds, criminal and civilian, there's really no neat border. The Katsumata gang knows that Tachibana is one of three small-timers who witnessed the murder of a politician, which the gangsters staged to look like he'd hung himself.

The cops believe it because Katsumata paid the trio hush money, but now one of them is writing anonymously to both sides, demanding more hush money from the gangsters or a payoff from the cops for a confession. The culprit is actually another guy (Joe Shishido) who gets killed for his trouble, but the episode makes Katsumata interested in Tachibana and the other witness, Tachibana's bartender Makoto, while the cops know those two as the victim's cronies. Katsumata offers them hush money and Makoto takes it while Tachibana tries to remain aloof. This leads to a falling out with Makoto, who tells him off by explaining that the rape that provoked Tachibana to kill a man didn't play out the way he thought -- and that he'd killed the wrong man.

A symbolic honor killing? Tachibana throws his (t)rusty knife at a flashback apparition of his violated girlfriend.

So we have a tale of two hangings. The cops believe that the politician (the father of the journalist character played by Mie Kitahara) committed suicide, but Tachibana knows the truth. Tachibana believes he knows why his girlfriend hung herself, but Makoto knows some of the truth, and Katsumata knows more. As Tachibana plunges back into the criminal milieu in search of the ultimate truth, he realizes the need to tell the police the truth about the politician's "suicide." And wouldn't you know? The person behind that hanging and the one ultimately behind the death of Tachibana's girlfriend are one and the same.

Above, dramatic moments from Rusty Knife. Below, Mie Kitahara can't stand the suspense.

Rusty Knife maintains the "borderless" character of the Nikkatsu noirs, as nearly all the characters are thoroughly westernized and the gangsters look and behave more like American hoods than yakuza. Indeed, the one character who conspicuously wears traditional dress turns out to be a bad guy. The movie consciously deals with modern crime, explaining in an opening narration that post-war reconstruction attracted organized crime to the site of the story. And the emphasis on modernity identified with westernization seems fitting for a cycle of movies that are intended as youth films. For someone who's done five years hard time, Tachibana is quite a baby faced felon, and Yujiro Ishihara is a good deal younger than most American noir stars. Still, it's a story that could easily be translated into an American setting, though then it might be cast with older actors. These Nikkatsu films aren't classics in the league of the acknowledged Japanese masters, or even genre masters like Fukasaku or Suzuki (who directs the next film in the set), but they are structurally and thematically interesting, as well as well made, in a way that justifies the Eclipse collection.


dfordoom said...

I'm very very tempted by that boxed set, but the price is just a litte off-putting.

Samuel Wilson said...

That's why I held back until Barnes & Noble had another of those mind-boggling 50% off sales on Criterion discs last month. They did it twice this year so keep an eye open for when they strike again.