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 (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) for the first time, and dubbed them film noir – black films, both for their heavy use of shadows and dark subject matter.
However, there is a growing consensus that film noir existed long before this. Indeed, the term film noir was not widely used in American circles until the 1970s. Until then, these types of films were called melodramas. Noir has deep roots in German Expressionism with films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and with crime films like M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Japan was no stranger to gangster movies, cloaked heavily in shadows, made long before World War II and before the term film noir was even invented.
For Noirvember, I’ve spotlighted ten film noir recommendations from Japan, both from before World War II and after. For hardcore noirstas, you might not see your favorite movie here, but let me know if you’d like to see a part two. There are also plenty of American-made noir set in Japan, such as 1974’s The Yakuza and 1949’s Tokyo Joe. This is by no means a complete list, but just a good sampling of some of my favorites, enough to get you started on film noir from the Rising Sun.
The Great Depression impacted Japan deeply, mostly due to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff crippling Japanese imports to America. The shock to the economy hit hard in 1930, which is shown at its bleakest in That Night’s Wife. Tokihiko Okada plays a desperate father, who robs an office in order to raise funds for his sick daughter. The Tokyo Police are hot on his trail though, and a hardboiled detective tracks him down at a dingy apartment. Okada and his wife get the jump on him and hold him hostage until the doctor can arrive, hoping it’s not too late for their daughter.
That Night’s Wife was directed by the legendary Yasujiro Ozu and is one of his earliest surviving works. The cast is all stellar, especially Okada whose portrayal of a desperate father reduced to armed robbery is memorable and contrasts the sensitive, romantic roles he was known for. Tragically, Okada died of tuberculosis in 1934.
It’s part of a movement in Japanese cinema from the late 1920s/early 1930s known as a tendency film (傾向映画, keiko-eiga), named so due to their left-wing tendencies. These movies dealt with poverty, capitalism, crime, labor conditions, and injustice, which pushed the limits of prewar Japanese society. Films such as Tokyo March (1929) What Made Her Do It? (1930) are staples of this short-lived genre, but That Night’s Wife also fits the mold as a noir, dealing with urban isolation, crime, and desperation, all stylized with shadows and light, still relevant today.
2) The Police Officer – (警察官, Keisatsukan) 1933
An estimated 90% of prewar Japanese films are completely lost, and this is exemplified in the work of director Tomu Uchida. None of his prewar movies survive intact, except for the 1933 noir crime film – Keisatsukan. Translated as either The Police Officer or The Policeman, the film stars Isamu Kosugi as a Itami, a fresh-faced rookie – a junsa, the lowest rank in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Junsa Itami comes across an old friend, Tetsuo Tomioka, (played by Eiji Nakano) at a roadblock. Tetsuo is every inch a mobo – a modern boy – the Western-obsessed playboys of the early Showa Era.
But as they reminisce, it’s clear something’s a little off about Tetsuo. The son of a rich family, he’s become estranged from his father, saying “The Sons of Blue Bloods invariably become Reds.” hinting that he’s been disowned for his Communist political beliefs. Well then, where does Tetsuo get his fancy clothes and car?
The answer comes during a bank robbery, where an older police officer – Itami’s senpai, his mentor – is shot by unidentified assailants. Using modern police methods like lfting fingerprints off a pack of Golden Bat cigarettes and blood analysis, the manhunt is on, but Itami suspects Tetsuo of his involvement. Rather than confront his old friend directly, Itami meets up with Tetsuo at a stylish coffee house and tries to trip him up in a tense game of cat and mouse.
Everything climaxes in an explosive scene where the Police raid the Tetsuo’s gang, armed to the teeth with pistols, and former friends fight it out. The plot of Keisatsukan owes something to the real-life Omori Bank Incident aka the Red Gang Incident of October 1932. Members of the Japanese Communist Party robbed a bank, something unheard of in Japan, in a desperate attempt to keep their party alive. Instead, it dealt a death blow to Japanese Communism, allowing the Police to crack down even harder on Communists, like the writer Takiji Kobayashi, who was beaten to death in February 1933.
As mentioned this was the first bank robbery in Japan, spawning imitators, both in real-life and film. According to Silent Film San Francisco, screenwriter Eizo Yamauchi was instructed to make the criminals be Communists, even though politics is barely mentioned in the film. Perhaps as a way to connect the movie to recent events, or to demonize Communists even further. The answer is lost to time. Interestingly enough, many Tomu Uchida’s prewar works fit into the aforementioned tendency film genre, such as A Living Puppet (1929), so Keisatsukan might have even been a way for the director to rehabilitate his name.
The Metropolitan Police are portrayed positively throughout the film, even if Itami is conflicted about arresting his childhood friend. Most media about the prewar Japanese police are less than flattering, little more than thugs and bullies in uniform. However, Keisatsukan is invaluable in showing the daily operations of the prewar police, precious little of which is available in English. Added to that, it’s a moody crime noir, cloaked in shadows and betrayal, a perfect example of early Japanese noir.
Another film by the legendary Yasujiro Ozu, Dragnet Girl might very well be the quintessential film noir of prewar Japanese cinema. It follows the lives of small-time gangster Joji (Joji Oka) and his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), typist by day and gun moll by night. The two wade through the criminal underbelly of depression-era Tokyo, lounging in pool halls and jazz clubs. When a young student named Hiroshi joins the gang, Joji is soon taken with his older sister Kazuko.
Seething with jealously, Tokiko pulls a gun on Kazuko, but has second thoughts. With Kazuko’s help, she begins to reform and even tries to persuade Joji to abandon his life of crime. But when Hiroshi steals money from Kazuko’s work and spends most of it, Joji feels obligated to help a member of his gang out and spare him a life of crime. To do so, he and Tokiko will pull off one last heist to pay the money back and set Hiroshi on the straight and narrow.
They target Tokiko’s boss, who’s smitten with her, in a daring daylight armed robbery. But in a noir, nothing goes according to plan, and Joji and Tokiko soon find the walls closing in and must make a choice. Surrender to the cops and suffer the consequences for their pasts, or end it all at the barrel of a gun.
Kinuyo Tanaka was the veritable “It” Girl of Japanese silent cinema, and her performance stands out as the best in Dragnet Girl. Arguably, she’s the main character and experiences the greatest range of emotions. Tanaka herself has a very long history in Japanese cinema, starring in the first Japanese sound movie The Neighbor’s Wife And Mine in 1931, and even became the country’s second female director. Ozu is at his best here, and Dragnet Girl captures a moody, depression-era Japan, fraught with crime, doomed love, and hopelessness, perfect ingredients for noir.
4) Drunken Angel – (醉いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi) 1948
Set in postwar Tokyo, a small-time yakuza named Matsunaga (played by Toshiro Mifune) stumbles into the clinic of Dr. Sanada – a cynical alcoholic – to remove a bullet from his hand. During the examination, Sanada discovers Matsunaga has tuberculosis and, if less untreated, won’t last long. Despite his hard-drinking and brutal lifestyle, Matsunaga agrees to Sanada’s treatment, but the yakuza way of life is hard to leave.
Another yakuza thug, Okada, shows up out of prison and finds out that his former lover is actually Dr. Sanada’s assistant. Okada was an abusive lout, and puts him into conflict with Matsunaga, despite them technically being yakuza brothers. Meanwhile, Okada’s influence corrupts Matsunaga even further, binge drinking in jazz clubs against Sanada’s orders.
When Okada makes a move on Matsunaga’s turf, it’s the last straw. Betrayed by his yakuza boss and now coughing up blood, Matsunaga realizes he doesn’t have much time left and makes a final decision. Drunken Angel marks the first collaboration of Toshiro Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa, which proved long and fruitful. Despite being released less than three years after World War II ended, Tokyo is still shown a devastated wasteland, full of rubble where kids play and haphazard buildings are flung up.
There’s also a decadent nightlife shown, perhaps a subtle criticism of the American occupation – which is never mentioned or shown – and performance of “Jungle Boogie” by the scat queen of Japan Shizuko Kasagi. A deep cynicism permeates the movie, a bitter resentment toward the past. Matsunaga almost represents the old Japan, full of arbitrary codes and aggression, while a young female student whom Sanada is also treating for tuberculosis, represents the new Japan, full of youth and vigor.
Indeed, Dr. Sanada says “The Japanese make too many ridiculous sacrifices.” A wry statement on the war itself and right at home in film noir.
5) Stray Dog – (野良犬, Nora inu) 1949
Often seen as the Japanese film noir, Stray Dog is the third collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, the second being The Quiet Duel. The duo hit their stride in this film, with Mifune standing out as clean-cut Inspector Murakami, a rookie cop in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, a far cry from the two-bit yakuza of Drunken Angel. On a sweltering summer day, Murakami’s gun is stolen during his morning commute on a crowded bus. A severe loss of face for any police officer, but even worse for a Japanese cop. Instead of suicide or resignation, Murakami is obligated to locate the gun and is partnered with veteran cop Inspector Sato. The two search the alleys, clubs, and baseball stadiums of postwar Tokyo, while an oppressive heat beats down on them.
Meanwhile, Murakami’s pistol is being used in various crimes – from mugging a woman, to armed robbery, the criminal becomes more and more brazen. But Murakami and Sato, using smart police work, are closing in, but might be underestimating the danger they’re about to face.
As with Drunken Angel, Stray Dog showcases the divide between prewar and postwar Japan. When questioning a suspect, Inspector Sato says, “Don’t worry, we won’t beat you like the Army.” A reference to how brutally soldiers were treated during the war. Japan is seeing rebuilding, but the scars from war are deep and raw. Although a noir, there’s still hope embedded in the story, not just for the characters but for Japan also.
Kurosawa stated that Stray Dog was inspired by The Naked City (1948) a semi-documentary American noir. There’s more character and drama in Stray Dog, and has early signs of the buddy-cop genre in the senpai-kohai relationship of Murakami and Sato. Postwar Japan gave Kurosawa much more freedom to make movies, but American censors wanted him to remove the opening credits, which shows a dog panting in the brutal summer heat. The argument went that the dog must be in pain and therefore, was cruel to animals.
“It was the only time I regretted that Japan lost the war,” Kurosawa later said.
6) I Am Waiting – (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa matteru ze) 1957
The years 1957 – 1967 are a sort of golden age in Japanese noir, spearheaded by Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest movie studio. I Am Waiting is the first of a wave of neo-noir that populated Japanese movie theaters in the late 50s/early 60s, just as the golden age of noir was winding down in America. But these neo-noir movies, especially from Nikkatsu, often focused on young Japanese, disillusioned with the world and especially prewar Japan.
I Am Waiting is about washed-up boxer Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara), who comes across the beautiful and forlorn Saeko (Mie Kitahara) at the docks one foggy night. Saeko looks ready to end it all and jump into the water, but Joji convinces her to come back with him and work at his restaurant. The two develop a mutual attraction and try to forget about their pasts – Joji being disbarred from the ring, and Saeko a former singer at a cabaret, on the run from gangsters.
Instead, they look to the future. Joji hopes to join his brother in Brazil and start a new life, but the gangsters from Saeko’s past track her down and give her an ultimatum – return with them or else. Complicating matters, Joji learns that these gangsters also knew his brother, who might never have even reached Brazil.
The film was the directorial debut of Koreyoshi Kurahara, who would have a long career in Japanese movies and television and would direct Yujiro Ishihara in many other films. I Am Waiting was written by Shintaro Ishihara, Yujiro Ishihara’s older brother, who would later become a darling in the Japanese right-wing, penning the nationalistic book The Japan That Can Say No in 1989 and denial of the Nanking Massacre. Luckily, politics are largely absent from I Am Waiting, and focuses more on universal human emotions – depression, loneliness, regret, and a longing to start over. A perfect cocktail for film noir.
7) Intimidation – (ある脅迫, Aru Kyohaku) 1960
Sometimes called a “pocket noir” Intimidation is a taut crime thriller, clocking in at a lean 65 minutes, and makes use of every second of screentime. I, for one, appreciate short movies. Nothing is worse than a movie that overstays its welcome.
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, Intimidation makes use of every second of screentime. Nobuo Kaneko plays Takita, a bank manager whose career is on the rise. His childhood friend Nakaike, played by Ko Nishimura, isn’t so lucky, languishing in mediocrity. It doesn’t help that they both work at the same bank, and their friendship has turned to bitter resentment, thanks to Takita’s arrogant bullying. Meek, mild, and submissive, Nakaike takes his abuse in silence.
Until one day a criminal named Kumaki appears with hard evidence of Takita’s double-dealings. His rise has been fueled by illegal loans and shady connections. Kumaki threatens to blow Takita’s life wide open, unless he secures a huge amount of money. Kumaki even has a plan on how to acquire the cash – simply rob his own bank. After all, nobody would suspect the bank manager. But when Takita shows up in a disguise, ready to clear the bank out, Nakaike is there, and recognizes him. Takita has to make a decision – abandon the robbery or silence Nakaike forever.
8) Take Aim At the Police Van – (その護送車を狙え, Sono gososha o nerae) 1960
Another Nikkatsu noir, Take Aim At the Police Van is a twisty, maze-like mystery, but with lots of great action sprinkled in. Daijiro Tamon (played by Michitaro Mizushima) is a prison guard, who’s escorting three convicts in the titular police van. In the dead of night, an ambush occurs, killing two of the prisoners. Tamon is suspended from duty but takes it upon himself to track down the killers and bring them to justice and clear his name.
The prisoner who survived the ambush, Goro, is soon released and Tamon trails him into a world of nightclubs and the Hamaju Modeling Agency which is a front for human trafficking in southeast Asia. The agency is run by the seductive and upright Yoko, the movie’s femme fatale, whose motives and allegiances are obscured. Yoko’s father is ill and she’s running things, but many others in the company seek to replace her for their own purposes.
Every answer Tamon uncovers leads to more questions, as why were the prisoners attacked in the first place, what is the Hamaju Agency’s end goal, what are Yoko’s motivations, and who is behind this conspiracy?
The movie was directed by Seijun Suzuki (often just called Seijun) who made such films as Story of a Prostitute and the infamously incoherent Branded to Kill. Luckily though, Take Aim At the Police Van is grounded in reality and although it has a lot of twists and turns, it all makes sense in the end. But you might have to watch it twice to catch everything.
9) Cruel Gun Story – (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju zankoku monogatari) 1964
No Japanese noir list would be complete without at least one entry with the legendary Joe Shishido, star of dozens of pulpy thrillers, yakuza pictures, and film noir. Shishido plays Togawa, a convict just released from prison and pulled in to do a job for a big-time yakuza boss – hijack an armored car carrying 127 million yen in racetrack proceeds. But Togawa’s motivations for accepting aren’t entirely selfish. With his cut, he can pay for an operation that will allow his disabled little sister, Rei, to walk.
Typical of a heist movie, Togawa canvasses the underworld for suitable partners in pulling this caper off, each with their own role to play. We see the plan unfold under the most ideal scenario – the armored car is diverted to a side road where it’s ambushed, the guards are killed in a hail of gunfire, and Togawa’s crew make off without a hitch.
Of course, it doesn’t go smoothly, and the guards refuse to even exit the armored car, barricading themselves inside. Short on time, Togawa and the others simply hijack the entire car and take it back to their hideout. However, how do you get the guards out once they’re secure inside? Worse still, Togawa is about to be betrayed by the mob boss, who plans on taking all the money for himself. Togawa will not only have to elude the cops, but also escape and take his revenge against those who set him up.
Director Takumi Furakawa is serviceable here, with great shots but nothing too out of the ordinary. The best part of the movie is the plot, full of betrayals, twists, and action. As mentioned, Joe Shishido was the king of Japanese gangster and noir movies. Tired of a generically handsome face, he had his cheeks surgically enlarged to help him stand out, and it worked. Shishido has a distinct look, almost like a chipmunk, but always memorable. His work in Japanese noir is long, and Cruel Gun Story is no exception.
10) The Wolves – (出所祝い, Shussho iwai) 1971
The Wolves is a good blend of the yakuza genre mixed with noir. But not just any noir, but 70s noir. The movie’s atmosphere is pregnant a heavy dose of 1970s-era pessimism, that typified most of the decade’s crime movies not just in America (Klute, The French Connection, Chinatown) but in Japan too. Set in 1929, Tatsuya Nakadai (star of the legendary Human Condition trilogy) plays Seiji Iwahashi, a yakuza who is released from prison only to find out that his gang – the Enokiya – has merged with its arch-enemy, the Kannongumi (literally Kannon Gang). The merger was due to the insistence of the Kannongumi’s new boss, once the old one had died, and was aided by the leader of a right-wing patriotic party – Sir Genryu Asakura.
There’s a lot going on in The Wolves, and soon, Seiji Iwahashi discovers rumors that the Kannongumi’s old boss died under mysterious circumstances. And the new boss is looking to Asakura for government contracts to construct railroads in Manchuria. There’s also an arranged marriage with the daughter of the old boss of the Enokiya with the Kannongumi as a way of keeping the peace between the two gangs. Added to that, there’s a pair of kimono-clad women, armed with hidden blades, assassinating anyone getting too close to the truth.
As mentioned, The Wolves is a blend of noir with yakuza movies, the latter following the intricacies of gang life, the yakuza code, and a world unto its own, alien to most Japanese. In many older yakuza movies, there’s usually a “good” yakuza gang which, while operating outside the law, are seen as “chivalrous gentlemen” who use their ill-gotten gains for the good of the downtrodden. Opposing them is usually a “bad” yakuza gang, obsessed with material wealth, corruption, and power, at the expense of the common people.
Where The Wolves is a noir (aside from an incredibly moody score) is the incredibly dense and twisty plot. With a traditional yakuza movie, the gangs themselves would be the focus, with all their interpersonal conflict, but here we follow Iwashashi trying to reintegrate himself back into the underworld, feeling awash and anachronistic. He knows an evil conspiracy is whirling around him, but he can’t put the pieces together until it’s too late. What’s more, there’s not really a “good” or “bad” yakuza gang, just two groups of crooks manipulated and used for powerbrokers.
The Wolves was directed by Hideo Gosha, famous for historical dramas such as Three Outlaw Samurai, Sword of the Beast, and 226. Many of his movies also blend history and crime, such as Onimasa, The Geisha, and The Yakuza Wives. The Wolves is a nice addition to his roster and a fine example of Japanese neo-noir.