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August 26, 2009

Rusty Knife

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Sabita Naifu
Toshio Masuda - 1958
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

Rusty Knife is part of the five DVD set titled "Nikkatsu Noir, and it doesn't get much blacker than this film. Much of the action takes place at night, in unlit rooms and dark, narrow alleys. The cast and crew are from Japan's Nikkatsu Studios, but the tone of the film and the semi-documentary touches easily allow this film to nestle in between such American counterparts as Phil Karlson's Phenix City Story and Sam Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.. The characters are all here: the ex-con trying to go straight, the mobster who terrorizes everyone, the politician who is really in control of the corruption, the young woman who takes a stand against crime in her community, and the assorted rats, stoolies, b-girls and other lowlife, shadowy denizens in a shadowy world. I also should admit to a special fondness for any movie that was produced in widescreen (Nikkatsu Scope) and black and white.

Taking place in an industrial town in western Japan, the police are stymied in their attempts to nail a yakuza boss, Kutsumata. A former low level gangster from a rival gang sends an anonymous letter to the police, letting them know he witnessed Kutsumata engaged in a murder that was disguised to appear as suicide. That same tipster also tries to blackmail the yakuza boss. Trying to play both side, the tipster gets trapped, his plans for escaped ending violently. The two surviving witnesses work at a very small bar owned by one of them, Tachibana. While one, Mokoto, is easily bought off, Tachibana tries to keep away from both the mob and the police until he finds he has no choice, and that events from the past have still not been resolved.

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That the filmmakers at Nikkatsu had relative freedom is evident in a couple of places in Rusty Knife. Toshio Masuda's love of French culture probably was responsible for one of the gangsters speaking a smattering of French. The main character, played by Yujiro Ishihara, is probably more introspective than most of his American counterparts, and even a good number of his Japanese peers, conflicted over ability to commit murder in the past, and unable to let go of his penchant for anger. There is also a scene when Akira Kobayashi is riding his motorcycle with his girlfriend, and the film shows us the point of view shots of a wild ride with extreme angles of the surrounding buildings. As with the lower budget crime films made by Hollywood in the Fifties, it wasn't just the story or characters, but how the various elements were used.

Fans of Suzuki Seijun would want to keep their eyes open during the first ten minutes of Rusty Knife for a small role by Joe Shishido, here playing the former bodyguard who finds himself outsmarted in his attempts at blackmail. The film was written by Shintaro Ishihara, the older brother of star Yujiro Ishihara, the two being the artistic catalyst and the personification of Japanese youth culture in the Fifties. Not only did Rusty Knife mark Yujiro Ishihara's first teaming with Toshio Masuda, as well as one of the earliest films the actor made with Mie Kitahara, who would be his leading lady in twenty-four films before retiring from the screen to be Ishihara's full-time wife. Kitahara portrays an idealist young woman reporter who finds herself involved in the gang activity in ways not previously anticipated. A counterpoint to the stoic hero and upstanding young woman is the villainous Kutsumata, with the immaculately dressed Naoki Sugiura providing an almost constant, hearty laugh as he menaces the rest of the cast. According to Masuda in his interview with Mark Schilling, the film was scheduled had a ten day shooting schedule that was pushed to two weeks. Nothing about Rusty Knife appears rushed or haphazard, especially the way the characters are framed or how the scenes are lit.

I hope that this set of films from Nikkatsu does well enough to inspire more similar packages or releases of individual films from this era of Japanese filmmaking. It was the film Red Handkerchief that is reputed to have inspired 20th Century Fox producer Elmo Williams to choose Masuda to replace Akira Kurosawa on Tora! Tora! Tora!. In retrospect, the pairing of Masuda with Richard Fleischer makes some sense in that, while their careers were not parallel, both had established their reputations in making low budget crime thrillers before becoming directors for hire on more expensive studio projects. In summing up Toshio Masuda's career, what Mark Schilling has written could easily be slightly altered to describe the recent reevaluation of Richard Fleischer: " . . . he (Masuda) made films that were not only box office hits in their day, but are also still affectionately remembered by Japanese fans and regarded by Japanese critics as genre landmarks."

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Posted by peter at August 26, 2009 10:16 AM


I'm really looking forward to seeing all the films in the new Nikkatsu Noir DVD set. I may have to wait for awhile since it seems like there's suddenly a lot of interest in Japanese films and it takes me weeks to get new releases from Netflix. I'd prefer to buy the collection, but at the moment I can't. Maybe I'll add it to my xmas/birthday wish list and hope for the best.

Posted by: Kimberly Lindbergs at August 27, 2009 09:01 AM