Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Two of the Best Film Titles Ever

This post is part of the Japanese Cinema Blog-a-thon being held from June 15-21 over at Wildgrounds.

"Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards!"

"3 Seconds Before Explosion"

The wonderful folks at Kino just happened to release both of these great titles on the same day about a month ago. While one title reflects the joyful anarchic spirit of Japanese Pop cinema from the 60s, the other economically summarizes pretty much the entirety of its plot in 4 words (and lays out the fun simplicity of many of the 60s crime films).

"Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards!"

Rat-a-tat pulsing snare drums blast out of the speakers, scantily clad dancers jiggle around a Christmas tree and Jo Shishido smirks while holding a large machine gun like weapon...And that's just the menu of the DVD. What's even better is that "Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards!" delivers fully on this immediate promise.

Done around the time that director Seijun Suzuki began pushing his boundaries, but before he abandoned the idea of straight narrative, Kino's recent release of this 1963 Nikkatsu "detective infiltrates gang" story moves at a good clip. By giving just enough information to the viewer, the film keeps you in the loop, but also forces you to always be on your toes if you want to stay there. Because of that, it seems hardly worth it to describe the plot - it's doesn't really matter to a certain extent and there's nothing revelatory about it - so just know that you'll get gun battles, women in distress, tough talking yakuza, operatic death scenes and a jazzy, 50s rock 'n roll score. The key to the film is actually in its presentation. Things like visual cues, lighting schemes and character framing are always giving additional information while the quick pace, great looking colours, broad acting and the music firmly state - above everything else - that there's a sense of fun that will last throughout the movie.

A little grounding to the story couldn't hurt though...Shishido plays a detective offering his services to the local police after a mass gangland slaying leaves a single surviving witness. Shishido thinks he's the right man to go undercover. He plays it ultra-cool (and drives a wickedly great little white sports car), but not so much that he can't do some additional mugging on occasion for the camera. He even participates in one of the four musical numbers that crop up during the various club visits made by the gang members (it's completely silly, but it's extraordinarily entertaining). Through some of this goofiness, Suzuki manages to gently poke some fun at the genre itself while also using many of its own conventions.

Another distinguishing characteristic of many of these 60s films is the ability to sneak in some cultural commentary amongst all the schizophrenic goings-on. Whether it's the American style music, the large U.S. planes the camera lingers on as a car drives by the airport or many of the tropes of American crime thrillers being reused (and also slightly mocked), there's a definite sense of a struggle to find where Japan's own identity fits in. To do that while also stretching (and even redefining) a well-worn genre and keeping an audience highly entertained is a pretty grand feat. My appreciation of Suzuki continues unabated...

"3 Seconds Before Explosion"

Similar to Kino's other release, Tan Ida's 1967 thriller is a fast paced, colourful and completely entertaining story of undercover spies and gangs with lots of stylish violence. With several layers of spies acting on behalf of three separate groups attempting to recover some precious gemstones, Ida's film has perhaps a larger focus on its plot than on the striking visuals and stylish technique, but it still contains both of those as well.

The film opens with a roughly 2 minute long sequence of our hero Yamawaki being tortured - piercing tones and flashing bright lights are assaulting his senses and it looks like he's about to crumble. He's attacked by a knife-wielding man and just as he's ready to kill him (at the encouragement of a disembodied voice), the "test" comes to an end. It's been a training exercise to see if Yamawaki can not only withstand incredible stress, but also follow orders - to see if he could actually kill if directed. He's now passed his final test and is officially considered a special agent for the secret crime fighting bureau.

He's assigned to track down and recover the gemstones. Through complicated legal reasons, the gems change ownership to whoever has possession of them on a certain date at 6:00AM. So obviously, there are competing interests in acquiring the stones. Yamawaki goes way undercover to infiltrate the gang known to have the gems, but he encounters several issues. First, he's not easily trusted. Secondly, there are already spies within the gang feeding information to another gang who also want to get their hands on the jewels. Further complicating matters is the fact that his former colleague and equally well-trained spy Yabuki, is now working for one of these gangs. Of course, the two old friends respect each other, but vow that they will kill in order to get the gems.

Though not as openly silly at times as "Detective Bureau", the fun factor kicks in with the brisk pace of the story as well as Yamawaki's inventiveness and use of little gadgets. He's always ahead of the rest of the gang leaders and the assorted henchmen clogging up each scene (there are more henchmen per square foot in this film than any you might care to mention) and manages to retain a cool detached persona. Even the Chinese female escort attempting to seduce information out of him can't crack a smile on Yamawaki. Yabuki on the other hand is a bit more emotional and quick to temper - perhaps because his girlfriend is in a rival gang and providing information back to him. The women in this world, by the way, don't typically fare very well...My impression has always been that this is more a direct correlation to the real societal issues women had to deal with at the time than any kind of misogynistic exploitation, but whatever the case, it certainly jumps out at you. So even while you're enjoying a good solid genre film packed with action and tension, you can still be made to ponder a few things.

Even 40 years later.


Vulnavia Morbius said...

I think Detective Bureau 2-3 announces the "fun" factor with that low blaring of horns over the Nikkatsu logo at the beginning. I knew almost immediately that I was going to dig the film immensely.

I was a little disappointed with Kino's transfer, but that might be because I was comparing it with the Home Vision transfer of Kanto Wanderer at the same time. The Kino image seemed a little softer, with a bit more artifacting, but I expect this from them anymore, unfortunately.

3 Seconds Before Explosion is indeed a great title. I regret not picking it up now. I think I may have to remedy that.

Great comments.

James McNally said...

Detective Bureau 2-3 was indeed lots of fun, and I dug the vaguely lesbian sidekick. But the whole setup of the detective bureau and even the title itself made me feel this was the beginning of a franchise. I wonder if that was ever the intention?

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Dr.! I love the start of DB as well...

You're right about the transfer - there were several times I took screencaps and they had pretty severe combing. Better than nothing for sure, but certainly could have been better.

I hope you enjoy 3 Seconds as well!

James, I remember you mentioning that when we initially discussed the movie. An interesting thought for sure...I have no idea whether there was any thoughts about extending the characters to other films, but my guess would be No. I'm not sure how many of these films in the early 60s were parts of series...

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I really enjoyed both films a lo! It's so great to see more of these Nikkatsu flicks finding their way onto DVD.

Great selection of screenshots btw. Both films provide lots of eye candy!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Kimberly! Yeah, it was pretty easy grabbing screenshots from the films - so much to choose from.

Though the transfer is not the greatest - on some of the screenshots I had pick a frame or two before or after where I stopped it due to pretty severe combing.