Playing Sat Oct 1 at 7:30* & Thu Oct 13 at 4:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Joe Shishido in-person on Oct 1!
Legendary Japanese Man of Action Joe Shishido is a can’t-miss presence at this year’s NYFF sidebar “Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial.” The two and a half week series celebrates the studio’s humble beginnings in 1921, through the hard-boiled action and youth picture heyday of the sixties, bizarre “romantic pornography” of the seventies, and contemporary output by Sion Sono and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. With many films virtually impossible to see in America (including today’s selection), it is a major Repertory event.
The blog Gaigin No Kinema:
There is something about the style of Japanese acting that still keeps it different and fresher than so many other cultures years later. The style can often be over-the-top and beyond real, but this isn’t to say that the characters become caricatures. Especially in genre cinema, they often push the boundaries of what’s emotion with sharp delivery, quickly changing moods and actions, imposing gestures and by having slightly self-conscious personas without ever being narcissistic or self-absorbed.
Traditionally in a crime film, there are the simple archetypes that never break out of what the role is. There’s the honorable crook, the crook who swears it will be his last heist, the washed up cop, etc. Joe Shishido is one of those few actors that transcend the archetypal roles he’s given. In what would feel mundane and typical in the hands of an other, Shishido can make feel completely original and fresh. He almost has the quality of silent film acting with his understanding of his physical presence. It’s not just enough for an actor to be able to say his lines clearly and believably, but you need total command of a character. Certain actors use this as a means to boost their own egos or chew up the scenery, which Joe Shishido’s crooks keep in check. Besides, it would be uncool and uncharacteristic of him if one of his characters in the midst of deadly serious situations just shouts bloated dialogue. He get what he needs to get across and if he can do it with a punch or a bullet, then it’s all the better.
It’s also impossible to speak of Joe Shishido’s performances without his co-star: his cheeks. After being deemed to classical handsome by his superiors at Nikkatsu and being tossed bit roles, in 1957, he underwent dramatic surgury too extend his cheek bones giving him the classic Joe Shishido, more rodent than man (They’re even more spectacular in Nikkatsu’s lower-budget black and white films where the shadows and lighting aid in showing off the cheeks.). In a medium filled with sharp-jawed men, Shishido re-invents the face to show something cinema’s never been shown and it boosted his popularity tremendously. First acting aside other famous Nikkatsu stars like Akira Kobayashi, they eventually bumped him up to a variety of starring vehicles including comedies and romance until he found his niche in the world of action.
According to Joe’s tribute page:
Shishido Jo’s flair for the unexpected has manifest itself in many ways . When Jo began his film career, in the mid 1950’s, he was first cast as a slick, good-looking, Don Juan. However, at that time in Japan, the market was flooded with handsome matinee idol Romeos, and Jo got lost in the shuffle. Someone suggested that he might do better if he’d be willing to change his appearance slightly and take on the role of a heavy. Our Man Jo found the advice sound; but, no simple growing of a moustache, or perfecting of a scowl, would do for him. Instead, he personally decided to undergo plastic surgery, having his cheekbones enhanced to give him the look of “an impudent tough-guy”! This daring, drastic, face-altering decision–along with the honing of his incisive acting skills–resulted in rocketing Shishido Jo to stardom. He had achieved success by his creed of never simply doing what is expected.
At the height of his popularity, which coincided with the peak of Nikkatsu’s early 60’s “hard-boiled” action film craze, Shishido Jo became known for his ability to create outlandish realism, dramatically and physically. For example, he practiced dilligently until he could actually draw a pistol in less than a second! This proudly acquired feat earned Shishido-san the nickname of “Ace no Jo”. A tag which prompted Nikkatsu to use the image of Jo holding a pistol with the Ace of Spades balanced on its upturned barrell for the poster of the 1962 hit, “Hitori Tabi” (“Solo Trip”). In a series of interviews, conducted in the late 1990’s, the brilliant filmmaker, Suzuki Seijun (with whom Jo made some of his most memorable and stunning films) recalled about Shishido, “He was quite ambitious about doing action films. He was really into making the action scenes as physical as possible and he was always thinking about how to make better action scenes.” This resulted in Jo helping to make action sequences that rarely seem dated–even by today’s Woo-sian standards.
An interview with Shishido and director Toshio Masuda at Midnight Eye:
Nikkatsu Action movies often made use of gangster scenarios, or outlaw characters. How did they differ from other films at the time, for example Toei’s Ninkyo movies.
Toshio Masuda: Toei’s Ninkyo Yakuza movies, for example the ones that starred Ken Takakura, and Nikkatsu Action movies were totally different. Nikkatsu essentially made youth movies (seishun eiga) – human stories with young people, sometimes with yakuza characters or settings. Toei made real yakuza movies. The Toei producer, Koji Shundo, basically was yakuza. So they tried to shoot the reality of the yakuza world and its ethos. The audiences were totally different. The people who went to see Toei films liked yakuza movies, but people who went to see Nikkatsu films came for the drama.
Nikkatsu Action movies were different from other countries’ action movies at the time, for example, those of Hong Kong. We didn’t know how to stage acrobatic fight scenes or elaborate action sequences, so the most important thing for me was to focus on the story and the relationship between the characters. So what I was aiming at was more human drama.
I always think of Jo Shishido being the face of Seijun Suzuki’s movies. What was your relationship with him like?
Jo Shishido: He’s ten years older than me. He made a huge amount of movies at Nikkatsu every year, all entertainment films or program pictures, like he was putting food into cans on a conveyor belt. He was making movies like no one else at that time, and I probably appeared in more of his movies than any other actor. So that was our relationship.
He would write and plan his films back at home, all the time drinking a lot of Suntory whiskey. When he wasn’t shooting, he was always thinking about the movie. In the morning, when he met the cast and crew on the set, he would always ask everyone their ideas on how to shoot the particular scenes. Everyone would be standing outside the studio scratching their heads to come up with ideas.
Chris Desjardins is the only English-speaking scholar we could find who has addressed today’s film Retaliation, in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film:
A decent programmer that Hasebe shoots as if eavesdropping on many scenes. Some of this staging is effective; thankfully Hasebe takes his story seriously, because the performances and realistically downbeat situations save the picture. Akira Kobayashi is convincing as an ex-con trying to keep his gang afloat even though his elderly boss has been murdered. He takes over a restaurant, hangs with his friendly-sometime-mortal-enemy played by Joe Shishido and courts a very young Meiko Kaji. When Kaju gets cut down in a drive-by meant for Kobayashi, our anti-hero goes on the rampage with his comrades in tow. Obliterating the gang, they succumb, too, in a crimson-drenched blaze of glory. When Kobayashi expires after fatally attacking the bad boss, the scene is overexposed and shit in slow motion, and everything dissolves in blood-sprayed chaos against a bright white background.
The NYFF series features two other Joe vehicles…
GATE OF FLESH NIKUTAI NO MON | SEIJUN SUZUKI | 1964
*Joe Shishido in person on Oct 2
Chuck Stephens for the Criterion Collection:
Pass beyond this portal and you enter a nether realm of juiced-up joy girls in color-coded party skirts; beef-jowled strong-arm bandits and leering American leathernecks; humanity with a rope looped through its nostrils; compassion tossed carelessly away, like a crucifix half buried in dirt. Beware this churning vortex of carnality and aggression, this venal postwar whirlpool, at whose center roils a startling vanishing point of unvanquished passion: a pair of soiled pink panties, property of the caterwauling sweater girl whom two cops are dragging, her splayed and stocking-clad legs clinched in their white-gloved fists, crotch-first into our view. Heed well the warning label stitched within those knickers: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Into this already seething snake pit limps a wounded ex-soldier named Ibuki (played by Nikkatsu’s stalwart “mighty guy,” Joe Shishido), on the lam after knifing an Ameri-can GI. Now trafficking in bunk penicillin and macho bluster (even as Shishido looks more than ever like the world’s most dangerous chipmunk), the aviator-shaded Ibuki soon has all the women under his sway. Suzuki, too, or so the film’s close-up interest in Ibuki’s bandy-legged flexings, wearing nothing but his sweat and briefs, makes it seem; refreshingly polymorphous in its nudie gusto, the film goes so far as to give Shishido a bare-assed shower scene all his own. Snuggling cozily within the cultural cleavage between the erotic earthworks of Onibaba and the annihilation follies of Godzilla Versus the Thing (to name but two cine contemporaries from ’64), the film goes on to make bedfellows of everything from frivolous theatrical gimmickry—like the spotlight that shines on Sen while she’s entertaining a “date” on a filthy flophouse mattress—to pornographic detail, as when Suzuki lingers all too clinically over the on-screen slaughter of a hapless cow. Obscenities abound, from the missionary seduced and suicidally drowned in a sluiceway to a condom found floating in a bowl of “American Stew.”
David Chute for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1992):
Gate of Flesh approximated roman porno, with its de rigueur sequences of naked women being strung up and flogged. It’s about hookers and black-marketeers fighting tooth and claw for survival in the postwar ruins of Tokyo, and it is anything but an ode to liberating physicality. Just about every physical thing in sight has been degraded or battered in some way. Scores of bodies must be rotting under the endless piles of bricks. A naturalistic look in black and white would have at least reassured us that the director was a serious and nonexploitative fellow. But Suzuki lays on the Fujicolor with a trowel, flouting verisimilitude, color-coordinating the costumes and patterning the flesh wounds, as if to rub our noses in his threadbare “production values”–the overlit studio sets with their brush marks showing. He uses color not to soften his vision but to make it harsher; it calls attention to what it tries to cover up, like the blusher and lipstick in a funeral home that somehow make the dead look even deader.
From the opening credits (a salacious peddler’s tracing of Guernica) on, the screen sports a thin layer of sweat. The “city of savages” is Tokyo circa 1946, Seijun Suzuki sketches it with a flurry of scarring slashes and sob ballads. His metaphor is the meat market in the midst of postwar rubble, mouthy prostitutes as merchandise and G.I. Joes as prized customers: symbolism so blunt even the gals can’t help laughing (“Something’s crazy when our bodies cost the same as beef”). The streetwalkers are the heroines, hopping around, flashing tattoos, picking rumbles, flogging each other in their dungeon-lair. The fox in the henhouse is a battlefield survivor (Jo Shishido), a loutish ex-soldier who ardently takes to stabbing Yanks, slapping crones, and trafficking penicillin for Yakuza gangs. The hardened pro (Satoko Kasai) and the novice (Yumiko Nogawa) reach for whips to win his affections. An uproarious caricature of Mizoguchi’s fallen women, with softcore porn exploitation continually spiked by Suzuki’s political vehemence and bottomless bag of visual slaps — thought-balloon superimpositions, baffling sing-alongs, cutout sets and painted sunsets, scenes doused in crimson, green, yellow, purple to match the characters’ dresses. Flags abound in Hades, the Stars-and-Stripes trumpets a rape while the Rising Sun blankets a cackling-blubbering brute. A lyrical, Godardian bit plunks the camera in the middle of a bustling noodle shop, fastened to the back of the weary, irritated rookie’s head while some geisha’s disembodied voice offers an incantatory lament for old values (“A woman belongs in the home… My father loved my mother, and my mother loved my father…”). Sleeping with a man for free is as much of a cardinal sin in Suzuki’s animalistic Japan as dreaming of romantic escape, Nogawa’s desolate runaway is severely punished for both; the camera cranes away to take in the panoramic pigpen, “we live in a democracy now.”
A COLT IS MY PASSPORT COLT WA ORE NO PASSPORT | TAKASHI NOMURA | 1967
Chuck Stephens for The Criterion Collection:
Made the same year as such fractured tough-guy fantasies as Seijun Suzuki’s scat song of autoannihilation Branded to Kill and, on the other edge of the Pacific, John Boorman’s similarly prismatic pulp-mortem Point Blank, Takashi Nomura’s 1967 A Colt Is My Passport may have been one of the dying breaths of Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki noirs, but what a hot, blistering belch of action savagery and truck-stop heartbreak it was! Opening with the moans of a haunted harmonica, a sudden gunshot, and the florid, Morricone-oni twanging of an electric guitar, Colt begins by practically begging to be seen in the light of the spaghetti westerns that had been sweeping the globe since 1964. And much of what follows—in mukokuseki terms, anyway—remains true to that already distinctly hybrid Euro-American form, as triggerman Joe Shishido and his guitar-strumming sidekick, Jerry Fujio, go on the lam after a job Joe’s done too well incurs the wrath of the very mobsters who hired him.
Fans longer familiar with Branded to Kill are often quick to note the similarities between the two films: a bird, rather than a butterfly, providing a sudden distraction for Joe’s rifle sight; his occupation in both, a hit man on the run. But Nomura has his own, distinctively exuberant style: an alternately cramped and oblivionwide vision of destiny drawn in shotgun blasts rather than Suzuki’s surrealist filigree. Dragging a golf bag filled with guns and a freshly crafted time bomb through a dust storm on some barren wasteland, Shishido prepares for the film’s astonishing climax by digging a hole in the dirt: Is that his own grave? Is that tiny, skittering fly in the rubble a measure of his own mortality? The answers arrive in the sudden shapes of marksmen materializing from the swirling silt all around him. Colt was another riveting star turn for the insouciant Shishido, who was discovered in a New Face competition at Nikkatsu in 1954. His first films were all supporting parts, and worried that his career might stall before it started, he decided in 1957 on a new face of his own, undergoing plastic surgery that would result in the puffier, comically roguish cheeks and immediately distinctive countenance we now recognize from numerous Suzuki classics. Nomura had been making mukokuseki movies with Shishido since 1961.
Even in the standard plotted action or crime film, he keeps it unique and fresh with the collaboration of some of Nikkatsu’s finest directors. In A Colt is My Passport, Shishido is at his most Melville with his perfectly trimmed suits, professional walk, unspoken honor and even while running and taking bullets, he (and his suit) still look good.
Fernando F. Croce, in a review of Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir box set:
Suzuki’s favorite leading man, that perversely chipmunky nihilist Joe Shishido, headlines the last two films, further cementing the set’s bleak progression from tentative couples to gnarled loners. We’re back outside the law: In Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story, from 1964, he plays a skilled thief who’s barely out of jail before he’s shanghaied by his old boss for the mandatory “one last job” with a gang of punch-drunk uglies, junkies, and other assorted misfits. Basically a reworking of Kubrick’s The Killing, it’s a rope-tight suspense yarn that incidentally simmers with nearly as much outrage over America’s control of postwar Japan as Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships. It’s Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, however, that’s the collection’s standout entry, a coolly eccentric, stylistically exuberant maze with Shishido as a hired assassin who finds himself lodged between rival gangs. In the earlier film, Shishido’s outlaw protagonist was at least given a crippled sister to hint at bruised humanity; here, all he ultimately has is a bag full of guns and bombs before an endless desert. The climactic shootout is a virtuoso bit of action, but it’s also a glimpse into the moral wasteland, present in all five films, that threatens to engulf hero, villain, and nation alike.
David Austin for Cinema Strikes Back:
A wonderful example of the Nikkatsu New Action borderless style. Nikkatsu may have produced these films by assembly line but Colt could almost be a nouvelle vague masterpiece, that is, but for one thing – it’s got the style of an Elevator to the Gallows or Breathless, but with the heroic myths and unflappable cool of the protagonists unpunctured by modern realism and cynicism. The heroes are cool, the girls are pretty, and the action is exciting.
It did not hurt that Colt stars Jo Shishido, a veritable icon of cool. Shishido’s character here is a cold-blooded killer and something of a cipher (we are given no softening background) but you can’t help but root for him because he is so much slicker than everyone else in the room. Within the code of his profession, he has loyalty. He barely knows his youthful emulator but takes care of him like a younger brother, and is even willing to risk his own life to save Fujio. Of course, it is a paternalistic affection – he has no hesitation in knocking the younger man unconscious twice when he feels it is necessary.