Friday, December 27, 2013

Cruel Gun Story (1964)

Cruel Gun Story (Kenjû zankoku monogatari) is a 1964 Nikkatsu crime thriller that proves to be a fine illustration of the best and the worst characteristics of Japanese film noir.

Togawa (Jô Shishido) gets early release from prison, arranged for him by a mobster who wants his services for a big heist he is planning. A very big heist. The plan is to steal the takings from the Japanese Derby from an armoured car. The armoured car will be ambushed soon after leaving the racetrack. Togawa finds himself working with a motley assortment of hoodlums on this job. The tensions between the gang members are running high even before the job is pulled and so it’s no surprise that it all goes horribly wrong.

The plan was clever enough and the gang steals not just the money but the whole armoured car, including the driver and the guards.

The double-crosses start almost immediately and they steadily escalate. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else only to be double-crossed themselves.

There are so many betrayals that trying to describe the plot would be futile. The body count is enormous with endless gun battles interspersed with kidnappings and explosions.

Togawa is the classic doomed noir protagonist. We’re supposed to regard him as the hero and in order to enlist the audience’s sympathies we get a nauseatingly maudlin and self-pitying backstory. Togawa isn’t really a bad man. He was driven to violence when his sister was crippled in a traffic accident. Now Togawa wants money, lots of it, to pay for an operation so his sister will be able to walk again. The sentimentality is laid on by the truckload.

The sentimentality is bad enough but it’s combined with an extraordinary degree of adolescent moral nihilism. Everybody is corrupt. And of course it’s all the fault of the Americans. Tedious knee-jerk anti-Americanism is one of the more repulsive features of 1960s and 1970s Japanese cinema. It’s almost always combined with an equally irritating tendency to indulge in self-loathing. Any sane person would have regarded the postwar Japanese economic miracle as a very good thing indeed, but of course intellectuals and creative artists regarded it as a very bad thing. Who wants security, stability, freedom and prosperity?

The self-pitying hero-as-victim is something you tend to expect in film noir but this movie gives us not just one but a whole swag of self-pitying victims.

This movie obviously has some very irritating vices but fortunately it also has some impressive virtues. The content might be dubious but the style is breathtaking. Director Takumi Furukawa pulls off one stunning visual set-piece after another. There are a lot of action scenes and they’re superbly staged. The feel is very film noir. The movie was shot in black-and-white and in Nikkatsu’s version of Cinemascope and Saburo Isayama’s cinematography is moody and magnificent.

And of course this movie has iconic Japanese noir star Jô Shishido. He manages to negotiate his way through the sentimental sludge and no matter how contemptible Togawa might be his performance is still watchable. When it comes to cinematic cool they don’t come much cooler than Jô Shishido.

The movie’s biggest single flaw is that the characters are almost all detestable. It’s hard to think of a single character with a single redeeming quality.

The tensions between the characters fail to generate much interest because we already know that everyone is going to be double-crossed and it all becomes rather predictable. Both the betrayals and the violence lack impact because they’re so absurdly overdone.

This is one of the five movies in Criterion’s Eclipse Series Nikkatsu Noir DVD boxed set. The transfer is superlative. The paucity of extras is a disappointment. All we get are some cliché liner notes that spin us a lot of silly film school claptrap.

Assuming that you can tolerate its flaws, which are both numerous and severe, you might find Cruel Gun Story to be worth watching as an exercise in pure cinematic style.

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