Film noir is a tricky thing to define, and some still question whether it’s just a style relying on distinct lighting and shadow play or if it’s a genre unto its own. The term derived from French critic Nino Frank who, in 1946, saw many American crime movies like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity for the first time, and dubbed them film noir – black films, both for their heavy use of shadows and dark subject matter.
In 1931, Warner Brothers launched the modern gangster genre with the hit film, Little Caesar. Based on a 1929 novel, it became one of the most popular movies at the time, capturing the public’s attention and capturing the criminal zeitgeist of the late 20s/early 30s.
As the Nakamoto Corporation celebrates with a lavish gala in a prestigious Los Angeles office building, a woman is found murdered in an empty board room. So begins Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, one of his most controversial novels.
Japanese cinema has never gained widespread acceptance in the West, save for Godzilla and Kurosawa films. But those are only a tiny pinprick of Japanese films, which cover all genres, including war. Aside from Tora Tora Tora and Letter From Iwo Jima, there haven’t been many movies that show war from a Japanese perspective that have gained traction in the West. I’d like to change that with 5 Japanese war movie recommendations.
The Revolt 動乱 (Doran) is a Japanese movie from 1980 that seems like it was specifically made for me. It’s a sweeping historical drama set in 1930s Japan that deals with the internal politics of the Imperial Army and the two famous coup d’é tat attempts of 1932 and 1936.
Edogawa Ranpo has become synonymous with Japanese horror and mystery fiction. Using a pen name based off of Edgar Allen Poe, (try saying it three times fast), the author Taro Hirai wrote many short stories and novels as Edogawa Ranpo (sometimes Romanized as Rampo). Like his namesake, Ranpo wrote mostly horror and mystery stories, basically introducing the genres into Japanese literature. While Ranpo has a plethora of material to choose from, here are my recommendations on where to start with his writing and films based off his work.
By April 1945, the war in Europe was winding down but hostilities in Asia showed no signs of ending in the near future. Perhaps as an unconscious way to remind Americans that the fight against Japan wasn’t over yet, Blood on the Sun was released. It’s a surprisingly well-made thriller, with hints of noir, starring an impressive cast such as Sylvia Sidney, John Emery as the arch villain Baron Tanaka, and most of all, James Cagney.
Before World War II, there was precious little cinematic depictions of Japan from Hollywood, especially when compared to China. However, after Pearl Harbor, a slew of propaganda films were made to depict the Japanese enemy. Even among these, they rarely showed the Japanese home front and even rarer, the internal politics of Japan in the 1930s. Behind the Rising Sun is a surprising exception.
Tokyo Joe combines three of my favorite things: film noir, a historical setting, and political intrigue. It’s a criminally underrated movie and while it’s not Humphrey Bogart’s best, it still deserves to be rediscovered by audiences.