Film noir has always had an American connotation to it but world cinema adopted the noir frameworks in various ways, interpreting them in their respective cultural microcosms. According to scholars, the origin of the noir spirit can be traced back to the end of the First World War but it has evolved into fascinating forms since then.
For Japanese cinema, the lens film noir became a vitally important tool to analyse the socioeconomic conditions of a post-war Japan. Japanese filmmakers used noir sensibilities to paint a comprehensive portrait of a ravaged country that had been subjected to rapid moral decadence and widespread social corruption.
While there were precursors to film noir in Japan in the 1930s as well, it only started gaining momentum in later decades when prominent directors such as Akira Kurosawa used the genre to ask incisive questions about contemporary Japanese society. The younger 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:
Stakeout (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)
An important film noir from the late ’50s, Stakeout is an impressive directorial effort by Yoshitaro Nomura. Contextualised within the sweltering heat of an unbearable summer, the film brings the narrative tension to a palpable boiling point.
Two detectives in Tokyo are assigned with the task of observing the girlfriend of a prime suspect in the hopes that he will make contact with her. As the film progresses, neutral observation slowly transforms into projected personal connections.
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Probably the most famous as well as the greatest Japanese film noir from that period, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 magnum opus is a sublime cinematic experience. A powerful commentary on class divides and moral corruption, High and Low engages the audience in a relentless chase for justice.
However, justice means something else in this complex story about a wealthy businessman who loses all of his capital while trying to save the life of his employee’s son. In a world that is 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 noir that espouses all the dazzling sensibilities of the New Wave in Japanese cinema. It follows a yakuza hitman who gets out of prison only to find himself in the most dangerous prison of all – love.
Under the spell of an irresistible femme fatale who asks him to enable her gambling addiction, Pale Flower is one of the greatest achievements of the Japanese New Wave. The filmmaker was deeply inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire and it definitely shows in this uber-cool flick.
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 heist, one criminal terminates the rest of his partners and is sheltered by a sex worker who is able to turn things around with the money he gives her.
Years down the line, she runs into the criminal once again but the circumstances are completely different – he has become a high-ranking member of Japanese society. Unable to keep running from his past, things soon come to a grinding halt.
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
One of the most stylish and famous yakuza films from the ’60s, Seijun Suzuki’s fantastic work Branded to Kill is a delight for fans of film noir. It tells the story of a hit man who embarks on a strange mission that seems to be impossible.
An exercise in reconceptualising the film noir style, Branded to Kill was intended to be a low-budget flick but Suzuki transcended the limitations of the commercial plans by focusing on formulating a highly distinctive stylisation of noir cinema.
A Colt Is My Passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967)
Another fantastic yakuza flick from the same year, A Colt Is My Passport directly draws on the spirit of American film noir as well as an eclectic mixture 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 who is hired along with his partner by a yakuza boss to kill a former associate. Caught between two opposing gangs, their journey has everything one wants from a hard-boiled film noir experience.