Nikkatsu Action


Tetsuya Watari and Joe Shishido

Last week the Nikkatsu Action Film Series made its way to San Francisco and the nice guys over at the Outcast Cinema site who manage the event were kind enough to remind me with a friendly email. Unfortunately due to my current work schedule, ongoing apartment maintenance and various family obligations, which are leaving me with very little free time lately, I wasn’t able to see any of the films scheduled to play. I rarely make it into the city for film events anymore due to the high cost of gas, bridge fares, parking fees and ticket prices. A night out at the movies with my guy in the Bay Area can easily cost us $50, but I had really hoped to see two of the Toshio Masuda films that were scheduled to show at the Nikkatsu Action series (Gangster V.I.P. and Red Handkerchief) since they were two films I’d never seen before and I’ve become fascinated with the director’s work over the last couple of years.

Last year I picked up a copy of a wonderful Japanese book called Toshio Masuda – Films – Complete Guide which contains over 500 pages covering the director’s long career and accomplishments. It’s an amazing looking book obviously packed with many details about the director’s 80+ films and it also includes lots of lovely still shots from various productions. Naturally it’s written in Japanese and since I can barely read a word of Japanese myself and often have to rely on family and friends for minimal translations, I haven’t been able to fully appreciate the book. I highly doubt that there will ever be an English translation of the entire text made available, but the book has still managed to widen my understanding of Toshio Masuda ‘s amazing directorial career and I’ve been making an attempt to try and see as many of his films as possible lately, which is why I was so disappointed that I missed the Toshio Masuda films shown during the Nikkatsu Action series.

Here’s a brief blurb about Toshio Masuda from the only English text featured on the cover of Toshio Masuda – Films – Complete Guide. It’s written in broken English so don’t be surprised if you find it a little hard to follow:

“Action, Romance, Comedy, Animation, The War. A Giant in the field of Japanese program pictures. Toshio Masuda was born in Kobe City, October 5th 1927. There was a year his 16 films have reached the TOP 10 in the yearly charts. It is the second highest record in the history of Japanese movies. He also has been in the chart from the 1950’s through until 1990’s, for about 5 decades. This is a miracle and a marvelous thing. His films themes are not only about action but comedy, romance, animation and the war. And every theme relates to the bloom of youth.”

It’s really astonishing and extremely sad that the work of such an important Japanese director like Toshio Masuda is almost completely unavailable to western audiences and has often been totally overlooked by western critics and film scholars. Thankfully due to the hard work of some people such as the fine folks at Outcast Cinema that is slowly changing and I’m extremely grateful for all their efforts.

Since I’m on the topic of Nikkatsu Action cinema, I also wanted to mention that I recently finished reading Mark Schilling‘s latest book No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, which is a quick read and well worth picking up if you’re interested in Japanese cinema. I’ve enjoyed many of Mark Schilling’s books over the years such as The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture and The Yakuza Movie Book so I was looking forward to reading his latest effort and I think it’s probably his best book yet because it limits its focus to one topic and provides readers with some interesting tidbits about the genre. No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema is somewhat light on content but it easily makes up for that with lots of fascinating interviews with important directors and stars, as well as beautiful still shots and incredible poster art reproductions. I don’t always agree with Schilling’s interpretations of Nikkatsu Action cinema that he puts forward in the book or his opinions regarding particular films and directors. And occasionally while reading the interviews he conducted with directors I desperately wished I could have jumped in with my own questions, but I’m very grateful that Schilling is making a much needed effort to research the work and careers of talented filmmakers like Toshio Masuda who is featured in his book along with Seijun Suzuki, Yasuharu Hasebe and Koreyoshi Kurahara. Since so little English language information is available about Nikkatsu’s Action cinema Mark Schilling’s book is a very welcome addition to the slowly growing body of Japanese film criticism and history that’s trying to forge ahead and follow uncharted paths that were often neglected by other well-known Japanese film critics and scholars in the past.

Here’s a few brief paragraphs from Mark Schilling’s Forward to No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema:

“The label said it all: Nikkatsu Akushon. Nikkatsu was a studio that had been around since the silent days and Akushon was “Action,” written in the katakana syllabary for foreign words. During their peak, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Nikkatsu Action films evoked a cinematic world neither foreign nor Japanese, but a mix of the two, where Japanese tough guys had the swagger, moves and long legs of Hollywood movie heroes. Where Tokyo streets, Yokohama docks and Hokkaido plains took on an exciting, exotic aura, as though they were stand-ins for Manhattan, Marseilles or the American West.

. . .

“Foreign critics long ignored Nikkatsu Action. Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson’s seminal 1959 history The Japanese Film: Art and Industry passed over the entire genre in silence, as did its 1982 revised edition. Joan Mellen’s 1976 study The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema does not mention Nikkatsu or its films and stars even once. The rise of Seijun Suzuki to cult fame in the West in the 1980s brought the genre more attention abroad, but often in a negative way, with critics hailing Suzuki as an overlooked and discarded master, while dismissing the films of his colleagues as studio hack work (despite having seen few of them.)”

Mark Schilling’s book No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema retails for $15.95 and it’s currently available at Amazon for only $10.85. The Japanese book Toshio Masuda – Films – Complete Guide was published last year by Hotwax in association with Shinko Music Entertainment Co. LTD and it should be available at better Japanese book stores such as Kinokuniya. You can also purchase the book online at places such as YesAsia.com, but it costs a lot more there. The original retail price is about $37 and YesAsia is selling it for $50 plus shipping and handling costs so potential buyers should be aware of the considerable price hikes by some retailers.

The Nikkatsu Action film series is still going strong and many films will be shown across the country in various U.S. locations throughout April and May. For more information about the event please visit the Outcast Cinema Blog for locations and showtimes.

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6 thoughts on “Nikkatsu Action

  1. Peter Nellhaus says:

    I hope more of Masuda’s films come to DVD as the film fest ain’t coming to Denver as far as I know. What I have seen has been some of the post-Nikkatsu stuff, both Human Revolution films, Tora! Tora! Tora, and the film in which the world ends with Lorne Greene cut into to the action like Raymond Burr in Godzilla. I would hope the earlier films are better.

  2. cinebeats says:

    Hiya Peter! Masuda has made over 80 films (only 59 are listed at IMDb.com) so I hope you won’t base your opinion on the man after seeing only 3 or 4 of his later movies. That’s sort of like seeing a few late period Preiminger films and thinking the sum of the man is Skidoo (which I happen to like a lot, but naturally there’s much more to the director’s body of work than Skidoo!).

    Some of Masuda’s better early films are available on DVD in Japan if you have an all region DVD player, but they’re rather pricey (they can run $40+ a piece) unfortunately only a few of his films are currently available in the U.S. on DVD and VHS in the U.S. right now, which is really a shame. I’m personally interested in his fifties and sixties era films, but most have them are only available without subtitles.

  3. logboy says:

    i too really like mark schilling’s book on nikkatsu action… personally, i prefer his mid-range way of writing – not too light, not too heavy – as it’s easy to read and informative. the balance is just right for me. he does tend to get this write very consistently, but this book in particular is nice as it is, as you say, kind of missed a lot of the time that’s suddenly gathering fans and become clearer once again. this resurgence seems to be thanks not only to the touring retrospective of a genre that’s going to be easy to enjoy without necessarily needing prior knowledge or experience, but because outcast managed to find ways of ensuring lots of good sites have had the opportunity to get involved in talking about it all, it seems.

  4. Jonathan Lapper says:

    I like that you bought a book you can’t read due to language barriers, I’ve done that too. The bookstore I go to has several books in other languages available and sometimes I buy them just because they look so good.

    As for the festival I’m sorry you didn’t get to go. The A.F.I. theatre here is constantly showing great foreign programs that I miss every time due to familial obligations and finances. Sometimes I think it would be better living somewhere where there are no specialty theatres so you wouldn’t constantly feel like you’re missing out on something you feel you should be attending.

    I hope in your future posts on Action we get to see some scans of the stills in that book.

  5. cinebeats says:

    logboy – Thanks for the comment! The book is a great introduction to the genre and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks it’s his best book yet. Current books about Japanese cinema seem to fall into two categories at the moment. A lot of current books about Japanese genre films like Schilling’s take a more casual approach, which I can appreciate, compared to the more academic writing of someone Donald Richie. I’d personally like to see a nice blending of the two in the future but since so much Japanese cinema is really only beginning to get critical attention there’s a lot of new territory to explore and fans and enthusiasts are the ones who are really doing the exploring.

    Johnathan – Hiya Johnathan! Thanks for stopping by. You’d probably be shocked by how many Japanese books I own. I love Japanese book design and I’ve been buying Japanese books since I was a kid even though I can’t read them. Of course most of the Japanese books I own are comics, art and film books with lots of pictures so being able to read them isn’t 100% necessary, but it would be nice! Thankfully my husband can read and understand a little bit of Japanese so I rely on him a lot for some translations.

    I’ve noticed that the topic of seeing movies in a theater vs. at home has come up a lot lately in various blogs amongst people discussing the current state of film culture, but very few people mention the costs involved in going out to see movies in theaters these days. Ticket prices are just one concern, but I wish I could attend more film events in the city.

    At the moment I don’t have easy access to a scanner but if I can sneak the book into work, I will happily share some images from it when I write more about Masuda in the future!

  6. Keith says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his films. Asian cinema is something that I want to get more into. It seems that I’m usually watching something from Spain, Italy, or France.

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