Mark Schilling on "Nikkatsu Action"

You first curated a series of Nikkatsu action films in 2005 and just published a book on the subject. What drew you to this genre and the particular films presented in this series?

Mark Schilling: I first became aware of the Nikkatsu Action genre when I was researching my book on yakuza movies, The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films. Though a lot of Nikkatsu Action films featured gangsters, they had a different flavor from the films of Toei, the genre leader. They were more Western, but not in a slavishly imitative way. Instead, they mixed French New Wave and Hollywood influences into a blend that was something different from either, that expressed the energy and dreams of young Japanese, growing up in a postwar world in which old values had been smashed and new cultural currents were rushing in. The best of them were stylish, vibrant, inventive or, as in films of Seijun Suzuki, mind-bendingly absurd. The "No Borders, No Limits" title came to me easily—it summed up everything these films represented.

I was huge fan of Suzuki, but I thought Western critics over-exalted him as a martyr/genius fired by a soulless and uncaring studio, while ignoring the films of his colleagues—or simply dismissing them as hack work. It's like saying the only RKO director worth paying attention to is Orson Welles. Not really.

So, out of curiosity, I started digging more into the non-Suzuki action films—there are hundreds—and discovering ones I thought should be seen outside Japan. That research resulted in a 16-film retro at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy in 2005. Of those films, we had a subtitled print for only one, Yasuharu Hasebe's "Black Tight Killers." The rest, as far I knew, had never been theatrically screened abroad.

You mention in your book that these films “evoked a cinematic world neither foreign nor Japanese, but a mix of the two.” Could you elaborate?

Plains Wanderer Movie Poster
Original poster for Plains Wanderer (Daisogen no Wataridori, 1960).

MS: They may have been set in a real, present-day Japan, but usually a highly internationalized slice of it—a Ginza cabaret where foreigners danced the mambo or a port where foreign shops docked. The principal characters may have all been Japanese, but they acted in untypically Japanese ways and even looked slightly exotic, with longer legs or louder suits than the average.

In the "mukokuseki" (borderless) films of Akira Kobayashi, the hero wears fringes, strums a guitar and even rides a horse like a Hollywood cowboy, but in a Japanese setting, such as the remoter reaches of Hokkaido. Cultural mixing doesn't get much stranger than that.

The music seems to play a very important role in these films...

MS: Very often the song came first—and the film was made to promote it, like a feature-length music video. One example was Toshio Masuda's "Ue o Muite Aruko" (Walk With Your Chin Up, 1962), which capitalized on the popularity of Kyu Sakamoto's title song, better known in the US as "Sukiyaki." Also Nikkatsu stars Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi developed thriving careers as pop singers—and their singing in their films became a big draw for fans.

In some films, like Koreyoshi Kurahara's "The Warped Ones," the soundtrack drives the action, almost like a musical, but without the singing.

What do these films teach us about the tastes and fantasies of their audiences in the 1950s and 60s?

MS: Many of these films, especially the early ones, were aspirational, embodying the dreams of a generation. Unlike the heroes of Hollywood films—who were like fantasy figures to the Japanese, Yujiro Ishihara, Ruriko Asaoka and other Nikkatsu stars represented all that the audience hoped to become. Many young Japanese were leading pinched, hardscrabble lives as students or workers, hemmed in by social codes and expectations, but in Nikkatsu films they could see people their age (or a little older) driving fast sports cars, drinking in fancy night clubs, wearing fashionable clothes and, more importantly, living by their own rules, free of tradition's weight. The films were a breath of freedom. It was like being a teenager in small town America in 1964 and seeing "A Hard Day's Night" for the first time. You walked out of the theater knowing that there was another, more exciting way to live.

How are these films different from the action films that came before and after them in Japanese cinema?

MS: They expressed a distinct studio style, as well as particular cultural moment, and when the moment passed and the studio collapsed, the genre died as well. Nikkatsu directors kept working, of course, but they no longer made "Nikkatsu Action films." No one else did either, either before or after.

Have these films directly influenced the work of any directors outside of Japan?

MS: Suzuki's films have influenced foreign filmmakers, most famously Jim Jarmusch. Also, Quentin Tarantino is reportedly a fan of the "Stray Cat Rock" series. But since few Nikkatsu Action films, other than Suzuki's, have been distributed abroad, the impact has not been great.

Did you have any particular difficulties or issues getting these films?

MS: The main difficulty in putting together the Udine retro was the subtitles. We had to translate dialog lists and prepare subtitles for fifteen films—an enormous and expensive task made possible by a grant from the Japan Foundation. Also, I had to make several trips to Nikkatsu to check if the prints were screenable—some had been sitting in the storeroom for years.

Born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1949, Mark Schilling arrived in Tokyo in 1975 and has lived there ever since. He has been reviewing Japanese films for The Japan Times since 1969 and serving as a program advisor for the Udine Far East Film Festival since 2000. He is also the Japan corespondent for Variety. Book publications include The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (1999) Contemporary Japanese Film (1999), The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films (2003) and No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema (2007).

Topics:  Cinema

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    • <i>Monthly Classics</i><br>NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema

      Monthly Classics
      NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema

      Thursday, December 20, 2007

      Presented for the first time in the U.S. with new digital subtitles, the series explores the golden age of the Nikkatsu studio (Japan's oldest film studio), with eight stylized action films. Influenced by Hollywood and the Nouvelle Vague, these films reflect the Westernization that swept away old values, while teaching an entire generation a new Japanese meaning of cool.

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    • Nikkatsu Action Film Posters
      Design, Cinema, Popular Culture

      Nikkatsu Action Film Posters

      8 images

      The design of the posters from this 1960s action genre evoke the films' cool aesthetic and unique sense of style with graffiti-like lettering and action-packed photography.

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