Nikkatsu is Japan’s oldest movie studio. It was founded in 1912 but hit its peak from the fifties to the sixties. After that they started pushing pink films, basically Japanese soft-core. However before that slow descent into mediocrity they were the chief producers of a more youthful, edgy series of movies in the sixties. These included comedy, action films, and riffs on American noir. This series of mukokuseki (a term that basically refers to a trend of non-racially specific films, think the cartoony nature of anime and manga characters) include some much loved and fascinating films. Perhaps chief among these films were the works of Seijun Suzuki, including Tokyo Drifter (a favourite of Nicolas Winding Refn), Take Aim at the Police Van, and Branded to Kill (another favourite of Nicolas Winding Refn). All of which I own, although I haven’t watched them all yet. Suzuki didn’t direct the movie I watched, but it was included in a Criterion box set with Take Aim at the Police Van. A Colt is My Passport was directed by Takashi Nomura and came out in 1967. It includes the work of a few Suzuki collaborators, including cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and the film’s star, Joe Shishido.
Joe Shishido was also the star of Branded to Kill, where he plays an assassin aroused by the smell of cooking rice. It’s also a dizzying pop-art pile of weirdness that Nikkatsu instantly fired Suzuki over. According to the heads of the studio “Suzuki’s films were incomprehensible, that they did not make any money and that Suzuki might as well give up his career as a director as he would not be making films for any other companies.” Saigon Suzuki then turned around and successfully sued the studio, a case that got him blacklisted and left him unable to make movies for ten years. Joe Shishido strikes a pretty weird figure in any movie. He brings a strange brand of menace to his roles. Also he had plastic surgery to make his cheeks puffy, which at times can be disconcerting. It certainly adds something to the overall effect though. Shishido was trying to cut a more comical, roguish figure, and it’s hard to deny that it works, at least to some degree. Shigeyoshi Mine had previously worked on Tokyo Drifter, Gate of Flesh, and The Bastard with Seijun Suzuki.
A Colt is My Passport doesn’t have the same sort of avant-garde tendencies that one might associate its star with, but it’s still an invigoratingly stylized noir. It was part of the last leg of Nikkatsu’s crime films. The series of strange blends of yakuza films and noir were no longer working for Nikkatsu, which was at this point struggling financially. That doesn’t really show in the fiery, energetic, and surprisingly action-packed Takashi Nomura film.
Perhaps the only thing you could fault this movie for is the plot, which tends towards the overly common. It follows a tough and mysterious assassin named Shuji (Joe Shishido) who is simply performing a hit in the first fifteen minutes or so of the film. He’s been hired to take out the boss of an opposing gang. He works slowly, methodically, and alone. The image of him picking up shell casings from an empty apartment goes a long way towards summing up his lifestyle (or so it seems). Basically Shuji performs the hit, taking the time to admire a songbird through his riflescope, a moment very reminiscent of Branded to Kill. In a move that almost anyone who has seen a movie before could predict, Shuji gets burnt. In a political move he basically ends up on the run from both gangs. Initially the one he worked for at least pretends to help him, while they bat around their enemy’s proposal. By the end though both gangs are united against the common menace.
None of that is particularly unique. What is unique is the unexpectedly important friendship at the heart of the film. There’s the obvious prerequisite romantic element of course. The woman the moody noir protagonist meets and then plots to run away with. But she never seems even remotely as important to Shuji as his right hand man and friend, Shun. At first their relationship seems pretty professional. Shun drives the assassin around, chatting a bit and learning whatever Shuji chooses to impart. But then Shuji gets all sentimental in a hotel room and has Shun serenade him. It’s pretty cute. By the end of the film we see Shuji go to some questionable lengths to keep his friend safe and alive. That sort of relationship would’ve been more interesting if it was a shade more earned, but in the end it still provides the film with a nice character element.
The movie’s cinematography and stylization really shines. There’s lots of interesting, if not always successful, framing used. One fight scene cuts to an outside perspective as we see a window shatter when a man hits it. We watch the next couple of seconds of that beating through the broken window, then the rest is framed between the legs of the attacker. Not sure how effective that is, but its certainly interesting and uncomfortable. In general the movie makes great use of contrasted space, playing with a lot of sprawling empty landscapes and dense cluttered interiors. At times this a pretty interesting effect on the pacing of individual moments.
The highlight of the whole film might be the action. Whether it be a thrilling cat and mouse car chase or the spectacular final showdown, the action in A Colt is my Passport is lively and dynamic. The stunt-work is great, and the cinematography is dynamic. The use of detached wide shots and frenetic handheld at different moments is wonderful. In all honesty this film is worth watching just for the car chase and climatic gunfight.
Overall it’s a nifty little film. It’s moody and entertaining. The cast has that iconic noir feel and the action is wonderful.