Sunday, March 20, 2011


Nikkatsu noir this isn't. It's the same studio, and a lot of the same personnel, but Seijun Suzuki's film takes us about as far from noir -- or its putative Japanese equivalent -- as a crime film fan can imagine. Designed to launch a series (there was only one sequel), it presents Suzuki protege Jo Shishido as Tajima, a private detective who convinces the cops to let him infiltrate a new gang that's been robbing yakuza weapons smugglers. Our chipmunk cheeked protagonist (frequent readers will recall that Shishido had himself surgically, er, enhanced to make himself more distinctive looking) is given the identity of a prisoner, with all the resources of the police dedicated to backing it up. That's a good thing, since the gang proves quite diligent about background checks.

Jo Shishido (right) gets pretty cheeky with the cops, as only he can.

Tajima attempts to ingratiate himself to the gang by rescuing an imprisoned member from a yakuza lynch mob lurking outside the local jail, but the crooks never fully trust him. Complicating things further is his budding romance with the gang leader's moll and the fact that the star performer at the nightclub frequented by the gang is Tajima's ex-girlfriend. She's in the picture to justify some song-and-dance numbers, one of which our hero joins in. It's that kind of film.

Christmas in Japan

To be more precise, there's a kind of Rat Pack vibe to the whole project. If they remade it in America I could see Dean Martin as the detective. No one really takes it seriously, and the picture is pretty overtly comic, anyway. Tajima has a couple of comic sidekicks, one of which is a mannish female who doubles as a scandal-sheet publisher. The production numbers are purposefully tacky, all the more so given the Christmastime setting. The Japanese celebrate the holiday with one of the world's ugliest trees and a chorine performance of "When the Saints Go Marching In." There's a bemused engagement with Christian culture throughout, as when Tajima must explain why his alter ego "Tanaka Ichiro" lives in a Catholic church. The priest there is his father, he explains, and no one bats an eye.

Did I mention that there was violence in this movie? Hell yes there is!

The story isn't really that engaging once you realize you can't take it seriously, but if style trumps substance you can still enjoy the movie. Suzuki toes the line between taste and tackiness, and his strong sense of color keeps him in a state of candy-colored balance. The urban locations are an added attraction for time-traveling tourists like me. Detective Bureau 2-3 gives you a definite feel for a specific moment in Japan's pop-culture history. It's not in the same league with Suzuki's more intensely dramatic films like Youth of the Beast or Gate of Flesh, nor is it as nuttily inspired as his bridge-burning Branded to Kill, but it'll do for a 90 minute pop diversion to an exotic stop in the wild world of cinema.

1 comment:

KC said...

If it's got Jô Shishido in it, I'll watch it. Partly because of the cheeks, partly because of the quirky thinking that must have led to those cheeks. If he's ever done anything entirely not worth a look, I haven't seen it. I'm queuing this one up right away!