NIPPON NOIR: I AM WAITING (1957)

In recent years I’ve seen a critical push to apply familiar terms like Film Noir to all manner of Japanese crime films made during the 1950s and 1960s. The term has even been applied to the culturally specific Sun Tribe films (please see my previous post that discusses Sun Tribe films) as well as Pink Films of an adult nature and the more experimental and political films that exemplify the Japanese New Wave. I don’t always agree with this “roping in” because it limits our understanding of Japanese cinema, which contains historical and cultural influences that typically defy simplistic westernized categorizations. But sometimes the term fits.

It’s worth remembering that after WWII the Japanese film industry was largely controlled by the American occupation forces. Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood’s output at the time and in postwar Hollywood Film Noir was thriving. The concentrated effort to destroy much of Japan’s cinematic history and modernize the country led to an onslaught of gun totting detectives, dangerous dames and cutthroat criminals replacing the sword wielding samurais, kimono-clad ladies and gentle families that had previously populated Japanese movies.

Amid these changes filmmakers created their own distinct body of work that became more progressive and subversive after the American occupation ended. But the impact of Hollywood’s aggressively imposed influence is undeniable and in this postwar climate elements of Film Noir became deeply rooted within the Japanese film industry. One particularly striking example of this is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I Am Waiting (1957).

I am Waiting opens on the dark damp docks of Yokohama where Jôji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) is closing up his Reef Restaurant for the night. As he makes his way over derelict bridges and down twisty rain-soaked streets to mail a letter, he spots a lovely dame (Mie Kitahara) standing by the water’s edge. She’s wet, tired and plainly distraught so kindly Jôji invites her back to his place where he offers her a drink and a warm meal. When the two start talking, Jôji coaxes the woman into telling him her somber tale of woe and over the course of the film she eventually learns his sad story as well.

The mysterious lady is a once proud opera star who is now forced to sing in dingy nightclubs after losing her voice while being pursued by all manner of lowlifes. Jôji is a one-time boxing champion who accidentally killed a man in a bar fight and was forced to go into the restaurant business. She’s lost all hope but he maintains a fragile optimism while waiting to hear from his older brother who traveled to Brazil a year ago in an attempt to buy some farmland where the two siblings could start a new life together. Unfortunately for Jôji, his brother refuses to answer his letters and may have gone missing along with the family’s fortune. Will the beautiful melancholy girl that has walked into Jôji’s life be his salvation or his doom?

Japanese director Koreyoshi Kurahara was born in Borneo in the state of Sarawak, which was occupied by the British at the time making it a somewhat diverse and culturally rich location to grow up in. His family returned to Japan during WWII and Kurahara became interested in the film business early in life. While attending film classes at the Nihon University College of Art he met director Ishirō Honda (GODZILLA; 1954) and Honda introduced him to Kajiro Yamamoto (teacher, director, and Akira Kurosawa’s mentor) who became his tutor. After graduating college, Kurahara went on to work at the Nikkatsu studios where he became an assistant director and eventually got the opportunity to make his own films. His impressive first full-length feature for Nikkatsu was I Am Waiting.

Viewers will be able to easily spot the influence of early American as well as French Film Noir on I Am Waiting. From its jazz-infused score by the brilliant Japanese composer Masaru Sato, to the dark and shadow-lined cinematography of Kurataro, Takamura as well as the surprisingly gritty script by Shintaro Ishihara, almost all traces of old Japan are missing from the film. Signs seem to scream out their information in bold English letters (Reef Restaurant! Bar Keel!) in addition, the characters all sport western clothing while drinking western beverages (Cognac! Coffee!). There are no kimonos or sake bottles in sight. Even the music and sports the main character’s favor (opera over enka and boxing over sumo) suggest a postwar western world where criminals are running amok and guns are easy to acquire.

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s film is a wonderful introduction to the amazing world of Japanese crime films and makes a good double feature with Kurahara’s much better known and highly regarded Sun Tribe film, The Warped Ones (1960). This aggressively stylish and daring follow-up to I am Waiting helped kick start the Japanese New Wave and secured Kurahara’s position as one of the country’s most innovative filmmakers.

Further reading:
– Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir By Chuck Stephens
– I Am Waiting By Peter Nellhaus

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published in 2015 at TCM.COM