In the Japan Society’s “Dark Visions,” noir seems a catchall term for a group of loosely related psycho-thrillers, police procedurals, low-budget horror, and yakuza flicks. Noirishness aside, it’s clear that the big issues that once occupied older directors—the impact of World War II on society and the loss of traditional values brought on by Westernization—no longer interest filmmakers like Takashi Ishii or Takeshi Kitano, born after the war’s end. The show, which spans nearly half a century (1948 to 1997), includes Kitano’s coming-of-age fable of violence and vengeance, Boiling Point (1990); Shohei Imamura’s Endless Desire (1958), a rough black comedy about the spoils of war; Seijun Suzuki’s flamboyant yakuza yarn Branded to Kill (1967); and two Akira Kurosawa classics, Drunken Angel (1948) and High and Low (1963).
Yoshitaro Nomura’s The Chase (1957) is among the lesser-known titles, but it’s one of the highlights. Two Tokyo cops go to a provincial town to stake out the house of a young married woman in the hope that her fugitive ex-lover will turn up. He does, but not before one of the cops has fallen in love with the woman. A melancholy, beautifully composed film in black and white Scope, it depicts everyday life in subtle, finespun touches.
A small town is also the setting for maverick director Sogo Ishii’s oneiric thriller Labyrinth of Dreams (1997), a Freudian fable about a virginal bus conductor who falls in love with a serial killer. Tadanobu Asano, heartthrob of Japan’s independent film scene, is disturbingly effective as the remote homme fatal.
Not all is roses. A Night in the Nude (1993), by manga-artist-turned-director Takashi Ishii (who got his start making soft porn), is a shapeless mess, an absurdist Grand Guignol piece that anticlimaxes in a dismal attempt to out-gore Psycho‘s shower scene. To boot, it’s atrociously homophobic—a gaggle of hysterical queers rush in every reel or so to beat everyone up.
Ishii’s dippy twaddle is more than compensated for by the two marvelous Kurosawa films. Both star the great Toshiro Mifune and are principally concerned with the relationship between two men: in Drunken Angel, an alcoholic slum doctor and a wounded hoodlum; in High and Low, an industrialist and the criminal who attempted to kidnap his son. Both are dense, Dostoyevskian exercises, more breathtaking than the director’s later, grandiose historical pageants. High and Low is his most accomplished contemporary film. Whatever the company, Kurosawa remains emperor.