The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Film Noir

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Film noir has always had an American connotation, but global cinema has embraced noir frames in various ways, interpreting them in their respective cultural microcosms. According to specialists, the origin of the black spirit dates back to the end of the First World War, but it has since evolved into fascinating forms.

For Japanese cinema, the film noir lens became a vitally important tool for analyzing the socio-economic conditions of post-war Japan. Japanese filmmakers used black sensibilities to paint a comprehensive portrait of a ravaged country that had been subjected to rapid moral decay and widespread social corruption.

Although there were also precursors to film noir in Japan in the 1930s, it only began to gain momentum in later decades when prominent directors such as Akira Kurosawa used the genre to ask incisive questions about contemporary Japanese society. Young artists who emerged during the Japanese New Wave interpreted the cinematic conventions of film noir in more radical ways.

A beginner’s guide to Japanese film noir:

Surveillance (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

An important film noir from the late 1950s, Surveillance is an impressive directorial effort by Yoshitaro Nomura. Contextualized in the sweltering heat of an unbearable summer, the film brings the narrative tension to a palpable boiling point.

Two detectives in Tokyo are assigned to observe the girlfriend of a prime suspect in the hopes that he makes contact with her. As the film progresses, neutral observation slowly turns into projected personal connections.

Up and down (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Possibly the most famous and greatest Japanese film noir of this period, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 magnum opus is a sublime cinematic experience. A powerful commentary on class divisions and moral corruption, Up and down engages the public in a relentless quest for justice.

However, justice means something else in this complex story of a wealthy businessman who loses all his capital trying to save the life of his employee’s son. In a world indifferent to the plight of the poor, crime becomes the only effective form of transgression.

pale flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Directed by Masahiro Shinoda, pale flower is a black man who embraces all the dazzling sensibilities of the New Wave of Japanese cinema. It follows a yakuza hitman who breaks out of prison to find himself in the most dangerous prison of all – love.

Under the spell of an irresistible femme fatale who asks her to activate her gambling addiction, pale flower is one of the greatest successes of the Japanese New Wave. The filmmaker was deeply inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire and it clearly shows in this super cool film.

A fugitive from the past (Tomu Uchida, 1965)

A modernist masterpiece from the brilliant mind of Tomu Uchida, this 1965 gem is a fantastic meditation on crime and its consequences. After a robbery, a criminal fires the rest of his partners and is taken in by a sex worker who is able to turn things around with the money he gives her.

Years later, she meets the criminal again but the circumstances are completely different – he has become a high-ranking member of Japanese society. Unable to continue running from her past, things quickly come to a halt.

Marked to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)

One of the most stylish and famous yakuza films of the 60s, the fantastic work of Seijun Suzuki Marked to kill makes film noir fans happy. It tells the story of a hitman who embarks on a strange mission that seems impossible.

An exercise in reconceptualizing the film noir style, Marked to kill was intended to be a low-budget film, but Suzuki transcended the limitations of commercial plans by focusing on formulating a very distinctive stylization of cinema noir.

A foal is my passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967)

Another fantastic yakuza film from the same year, A foal is my passport draws directly from the spirit of American film noir as well as an eclectic mix of other inspirations. Following in the footsteps of the French New Wave and Sergio Leone, Takashi Nomura ended up creating something special.

The film features Joe Shishido as a hitman hired with his partner by a yakuza boss to kill a former associate. Caught between two opposing gangs, their journey has everything one expects from a hard-core film noir experience.

Marie A. Evans