Friday, July 25, 2008

Branded to Kill

A COLT IS MY PASSPORT / Koruto wa ore no pasupoto
(Takashi Nomura, Japan, 1967, 35mm, 84 mins.)


I think it's stupid for us to fight in a narrow little country like this.
It's better to have large dreams.

-- Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio)


***** ***** *****

The opening credits for A Colt Is My Passport unspool to the strains of flamenco guitar, harmonica, whistling, and percussive gunshots (Harumi Ibe composed the Morricone-like score). Right away, you know Takashi Nomura has seen a few Sergio Leone and James Bond pictures in his time. And if those sonic cues don't put you in the mood, this philosophically-minded crime drama might not be for you. Nomura delivers genre goods rather than something the world has never seen before.

That said, the world has never seen an actor quite like Jo Shishido before. Best known for Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill (1967), he's an offbeat hard-ass, which doesn't mean he lacks authority. On the contrary, Shishido's dark eyes inspire confidence, but those soft cheeks set him apart from other cinematic gunslingers.



While most action stars would surely prefer Clint Eastwood-esque cheekbones, Shishido had his enhanced in the 1950s, because he was tired of playing "Naïve young boy roles." As he explained to Midnight Eye in 2005, "I had plastic surgery
to fatten up my cheeks. I then got a lot of work playing gangsters and heavies."

In A Colt Is My Passport, Shishido plays Kamimura, a hit man hired to take out
dirty businessman Shimazu before he leaves Japan the next day. Bulletproof glass shields Shimazu's car and office, and he always travels with a bodyguard, so Kam-
imura has to catch him at his most defenseless. From a high-rise apartment buil-
ding, he plugs Shimazu and his guard at a tea ceremony. Normally, that would
mark the last act, but these shootings take place early in the film, suggesting that
the remainder will revolve around the consequences of Kamimura's actions.

Billed as a noir, the film feels more like a thriller with Left Bank overtones, i.e. more Albert Camus than Jean-Luc Godard. About Shimazu's murder, Kamimura states, "Nothing special. It's always the same." Though Nomura eschews backstory, Kam-
imura's apparent non-reaction indicates that he's seen a lot of death in his time.

Despite Kamimura's success, his handler is pissed that he shot Shimazu while
the latter was meeting with their gang leader, so he pays his fee and orders him
to split. Further, Shimazu's men have identified Kamimura as the guilty party, and they prevent him and his partner-in-crime, Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio), from fleeing to France, so the two hide out by the Yokohama shore, where lonely hotel worker Mina (Chitose Kobayashi) looks after the pair until they can board an outgoing ship.

Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More

When Shimazu's men bribe Kamimura's handler to eliminate his hire, the
rotund gangster chooses money over "moral duty." As in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, then, Kamimura--and, by extension, Shiozaki--is just
an employee going about his business. Not only is he too single-minded to question
the destruction he leaves in his wake, but nor are any of his good (or at least well planned) deeds likely to go unpunished. Consequently, one plan after another
goes up in flames, and friends prove just as unreliable as foes.

By the conclusion, Kamimura isn't simply a freelancer following orders. As he
plots his revenge against the two sides that took advantage of him, he's no longer an unfeeling drone, but a Ronin, or masterless Samurai. Whether he lives or dies, he intends to let his abusers know exactly what he thinks about their duplicity. He has a code, and they don't. Even if his plot fails, the moral victory will be his.

If the movie's somewhat leisurely center plays like Melville in Japan--and some might view 1967's Le Samourai as the French version of a Nikkatsu actioner--the
dust-swept climax returns to its Leone beginnings, or more specifically, to its
Leone's For a Few Dollars More by way of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo beginnings.

In other words, the final shoot-out plays like a cross between a war film and
a western. Based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara (Shohei Imamura's Intentions
of Murder
, Kinji Fukasaku's Blackmail Is My Life), the perfectly titled A Colt Is My Passport may not be as iconic as those reference points or as flat-out freaky
as Branded to Kill, but Shishido's Kamimura is an anti-hero for the ages.

Not available on video, A Colt Is My Passport plays the Northwest Film Forum
7/27-28, Sun. at 9pm and Mon. at 7pm. No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema runs from 7/25-27. The other films include Velvet Hustler, The Warped Ones, and Glass Johnny, which also features Shishido (Colt plays with Hustler). Outcast Cinema's Marc Walkow will provide live soft titling of the series, i.e. he'll be hand-projecting the subtitles onto the screen. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the BFI, and Cinema Strikes Back (click the link for David Austin's excellent review).

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