Venetian blinds and a Rising Sun: A look at Japanese noir


[In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Japanator has teamed up with its sister sites Flixist and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir is all about. Throughout this week and leading up to L.A. Noire's release, Flixist be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things. I'm just writing this for the free DVDs.]

Charting the history of the Japanese entertainment industry, like so many other threads of Japanese life, deserves exploration starting in the aftermath of World War II. We saw Japan completely re-invented in most every facet of its existence, in large part thanks to regulations and policy enforcement by the US government.

Today, in celebration of Noir Week over at Flixist, I'll delve a bit into the history of Japanese noir and two works that give us some insight into Japanese noir: Stray Dog and Castle of Sand.

So, let's get to it. Prepare for history, murder and betrayal after the jump!

Stray Dog - An under-appreciated Kurosawa piece

Back in the late 1940s and early 50s, the Japanese entertainment industry was placed under massive restrictions for what they could depict in cinema. This included bans on showing feudal loyalty, suicide and worship of the Emperor. This is on top of what was in the Hays Code -- industry-created censorship guidelines that were in place in the US already. The US forces in Japan (I'll refer to them as SCAP - Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) actually dictated that Japanese films had to show people working constructively in a way that would benefit society and promote a good lifestyle.

That made it pretty hard to create films that would be considered noir. But trust the ingenuity of the Japanese, because out of these restrictions, Akira Kurosawa brought Stray Dog to fruition in 1949.

On a hot July afternoon, we're crammed onto a bus with our protagonist: a young, idealistic cop in the Tokyo police force named Murakami. Things are going fine until someone pickpockets him for his pistol, sending him into the seedy underbelly of Tokyo in the first years after World War II in an effort to track his gun down before anyone can use it.

Stray Dog has all the hallmarks of a classic film noir (for more on what the experts at Flixist believes this means, check out their analysis of film noir.) First and foremost, the story is one of a hopeful young man who tries to do right suddenly thrust into a situation where he's clearly above his head. The pressure is on as bodies start piling up in the ghettos of Tokyo, all while Murakami feels the guilt for each death. As he is forced to deal with the yakuza, Murakami finds his ideals challenged when he can't do things "the right way."

By the time we hit the end of the film, Murakami's veteran partner tells him that there will be plenty of cases like this one, and he'll soon forget about everything that happened with this case. There are two ways to split the hair of that statement: in one sense, Murakami's partner is talking about moving on from all the violence and corruption that existed in the past for the Japanese people. That, without a doubt, satisfies the requirements SCAP had for promoting a positive image. The other way, meanwhile, has a much stronger noir tinge to it: that this cycle of violence and corruption is impossible to stop, and it'll keep repeating itself. The cops are just there to keep things in check.

It's Chinatown 30 years before the film hit.

Castle of Sand - The most passive noir you'll ever see

By the time we hit the 1970s, the Japanese, much like the rest of the world, were experimenting with genre. Castle of Sand took the film noir genre and made it entirely Japanese, breaking away from many of the traditions of American noir. The film's pacing is much more subdued compared to any American noir, with very little active conflict taking place throughout the film. After all, the two lead detectives have the dead body of an old man on their hands -- how much running around do they really need to do in order to find the culprit?

In Castle of Sand, the two detectives have very little to go on: the name "Kameda" and someone with a Tohoku accent. The detectives end up running all over the place to collect interviews, where the entire story unfolds. We learn about the relationships the deceased had, especially with some unlikely folk. I'll leave it at that so you might still enjoy the plot.

The interviews and flashbacks make this film distinctly Japanese. Rather than getting caught up in the protagonists as heroes of this story, we instead get to focus our attention on the meaning behind all the events presented to us in this manner. It allows us to act as a judge for everyone's actions, and ultimately decide who was right and wrong in the case of this murder. The dispassionate and removed way we see the cruelty that goes on strikes some similar notes to Grave of the Fireflies.

Castle of Sand evokes some beautiful imagery and is a hallmark of Japanese cinema. Mixing both the noir genre with other aspects of traditional Japanese films (such as Ozu's Good Morning), Castle of Sand leaves a lasting impression in your mind.

So what is Japanese noir?

What could be considered the key feature of Japanese noir is that the film is intent on drawing the audience into the movie, and focus on giving them the same emotional experiences the characters had. Officer Murakami's frantic hunt for his pickpocketer in Stray Dog; the concert sequence in Castle of Sand; even when Faye Valentine discovered her past in Cowboy Bebop -- the noir of anime -- evoked that sort of singular, crippling emotion. While films across the globe do this, there's a certain methodology behind how Japanese films tackle this.

You're not attached to a single character -- rather, you get to experience the inner workings of several characters in order for you, the viewer, to decide who's right or wrong. The intentional vagueness and lack of defined resolution at the end of most Japanese films creates something unique from American films, and especially American noir: it allows the viewer to continue on with the story in their mind, and envision their own resolution to the story.

Lighting -- perhaps one of the most famous trademarks of the noir genre, is notably absent from Japanese noir. The focus is instead on immediate visuals -- what is going on in the scene -- as opposed to creating a mood with lighting and other effects. With many Japanese films, it is up to the actors and the story to convey the emotions that are meant to be displayed on the film. Stray Dog was extremely potent in this regard, with the characters stressing just how oppressive the heat is -- you can practically feel it while watching the film.

Finally, the narrative itself is distinctly Japanese. This may sound obvious, but Japanese films encapsulate an entirely different culture than anything American or European. There's a greater amount of folklore and tradition that is present within these films that create a fascination with it for foreign audiences. Their subdued pacing, a staple of Japanese storytelling since the classical period, stresses the difference between American and Japanese noir.

Noir as a whole is a wonderful genre to take a plunge into. Hopefully, reading this and some of the posts over on Flixist will get you watching films such as Chinatown, The Big Sleep, Body Heat and maybe even The Man Who Wasn't There. To understand Japanese noir, it's important to watch some Western noir to understand the history of the genre as Japan was introduced to it.

Be sure to watch Stray Dog and Castle of Sand, and may they inspire a love of noir in you.

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Brad Rice
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Brad helped found in 2006, and currently serves as an Associate He's covered all aspects of the industry, but has a particular preference for the business-end of things, more + disclosures


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