Even though the Eclipse Series is intended to be a conduit for lesser films, it's proving to be the more interesting slate of releases coming from Criterion these days. Their 17th boxset, Nikkatsu Noir is a collection of 5 crime dramas from the storied Japanese studio released over a ten year period from 1957 to 1967. The last film in the series A Colt is My Passport is a title I've wanted to see for a long time. It was shot and released in 1967, the year before the much-more-famous Seijun Suzuki directed cult classic Branded to Kill, also from Nikkatsu. Both films starred the era's icon of Japanese cool, Jo Shishido and in some ways, A Colt is My Passport is a thematic and stylistic prequel to Branded.
The film did not disappoint. It's may be a standard gangster story - an assassin completes a hit and is subsequently hunted by both his employer and the rival gang – but director Takashi Nomura manages to infuse so many styles and influences into this one that you can't help but think of him as an early Quentin Tarantino. If Jean Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone did a film in Japan, it would have been this one. The black and white cinematography is crisp and stunning. The action is over the top but played without irony. This may be a world full of betrayers, femme fatales, and untrustworthy associates, but the hero still holds to a code, a theme explored in some detail in the earlier French crime films of Becker, Melville and Louis Malle. This idea of a criminal code of honour began to erode in Japanese cinema over the next decade with the release of films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Street Mobster but it remains front and centre in A Colt is My Passport.
I mentioned Leone earlier because of the completely unexpected treat that is the spectacular Morricone-inspired score that drifts in and out of the film. The music adds immensely to an already terrific film and the end of the picture is right out of Leone's Spaghetti Western playbook.
I doubt many of you have spent much time exploring Japanese cinema beyond Kurosawa and that's a real shame. I can't think of a better or more satisfying period of cinema than the Japanese output from the late '50s to mid '70s. Interestingly, this boxset serves as a terrific entry point to a period of film making that rivals nearly any other and it is for that reason that I implore you to give any of these five films a shot, if only to get a taste of what you're missing.
A little suggested filmography from the period follows. I've tried to order them with some effort to making sense of the genre in thematic terms.
You could do worse than start with this one, A Colt is My Passport from 1967. I'd follow it up with Kurosawa's 1963 High and Low (if you've not seen it), or Zero Focus a terrific mystery from 1961 by director Yoshitaro Nomura. Rusty Knife from 1958 is also in the new Eclipse boxset and definitely worth a look. Things get a little stranger when you move to the works of Seijun Suzuki but Branded to Kill ('68), Gate of Flesh ('64) and Tokyo Drifter ('66) are all amazing, zany and nearly impossible to describe. After you prime yourself with the '60s stuff move to the Battles Against Honour series (5 connected and chronological films) from the mid '70s about the rise of the Yakuza from 1945 to then. Finally, a must-see trilogy from the mid '90s by director Kaizo Hayashi, The Most Terrible Time of My Life ('93), Stairway to the Distant Past ('94) and The Trap ('96) might be another way into the genre. These 3 films were a revelation when I first saw them and I think they would hold up.
Do yourselves a favour and give a couple of these a shot. They're the best series of straight-up guy movies ever made.