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December 18, 2012

Black Line

black line 1.jpg

Kurosen chitai
Teruo Ishii - 1960
Beam Entertainment Region 0 DVD

'Tis the season for big studio releases, best of the year lists, and holiday cheer. As is my habit, I'm taking an alternate route. Not that I will be covering all of them, but I was able to come across subtitled DVDs of Teruo Ishii's "Line" series. Among the last films from the modest budget, and quirky, Shin Toho studios, this is a early Sixties Japanese film noir. Unlike something from about the same time, for example, Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, these films are unashamedly pulpy, without pretense to being strolls into Tokyo's wilder side and dark corners.

A woman is running through the streets and up and down the subway staircases. She evades the man pursuing her, somewhere in the vicinity of a Shinjuku movie theater. Across from the movie theater, a fortune teller get the attention of the man, purportedly to tell him his future. This seemingly psychic woman points the man towards another clue. The man meets a pimp over drinks. The man realizes too late that he's been drugged, only to wake up next to the woman he's been chasing, a woman now dead.

black line 2.jpg

The basic setup for Black Line is hardly original, but really, who cares? Part of it is the novelty of a different time and place that helps carry things along. Also, one might argue that part of the charm of genre films is their familiarity, that they serve as comfort food for cinephiles. In this case, we have free lance reporter "Scoop" Machida trying to get the goods on a criminal gang that runs a prostitution racket, the "Black Line".

And aside from trying to find out who's out to frame him, and who did the actual murder, Machida discovers more than he bargained for. There's also the school for doll making, where the dolls have drugs hidden inside, and the girls are forced into prostitution. There's even a visit to a transvestite night club, where the "girls" make it clear who they are, and whose pleasure is being served. Along the way, Machida literally stumbles upon a female gambler, Maya, the good bad girl, who helps him solve the mystery. There's also the rival reporter, who may have an agenda of his own.

There's some off-screen narration from "Scoop". Befitting his name, you get the feeling that he's the kind of guy who's scruples are flexible when it comes to getting a story. When "Scoop" demonstrates a trick of unlocking a door using gum and a toothpick, it virtually confirms that he's maybe a notch or two above the riff-raff, thugs, sleazeballs, hookers and strippers that populate this movie. That his mode of transportation is a black Volkswagen Beetle is another indication of modest means.

Visually, Black Line looks like classic film noir with the deep shadows, claustrophobic interiors, and desolate exteriors, aided by a jazzy music score. Teruo Ishii and his films were for the most part unknown outside of Japan during his lifetime. I would doubt that a film like this would have been imported as its presentation of Tokyo and Yokohama is almost akin to walking into a familiar room, turning on the lights, and discovering previously unseen cockroaches scurrying across the floor. The end of the film includes a slight tip of the hat towards The Maltese Falcon as "Scoop" suggests he'll bide his time while Maya serves her jail sentence. In it's idiosyncratic way, Black Line also has the stuff dreams are made of.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 18, 2012 09:06 AM


"Scoop" Machida! "Black Line" sounds like some of Suzuki's outre films of that period. That's a rather provocative still, too.

Posted by: driveinjimmy at December 18, 2012 10:33 AM