Japanese Noir Rarities: Passport to Darkness and Eight Hours of Fear
May 24, 2016
This past February and March, the UCLA Film and Television Archive hosted a series entitled "Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective," overseen by Tom Vick, curator of film, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and co-organized with the Japan Foundation.
For once, I'm not posting abnormally late (read: a year) with a review or post, and that's because Seijun Suzuki celebrates his 93rd birthday today. I figured it would fitting to share this piece for the occasion.
A more recent photo of Seijun Suzuki.
As a huge fan of film noir, I was excited and curious to behold how the Japanese handled the genre in the decade following World War II when I saw Passport to Darkness (1959) and Eight Hours of Fear (1957) on the schedule.
Vick, who was signing copies of his book Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki beforehand, gave a brief introduction of both films. In that address, he noted that the evening's pictures were produced early in Suzuki's career. Back in post-war Japan, movie studios operated very differently than they did in Hollywood; to work as a director, one had to prove themselves as an apprentice first, which the Japanese referred to as an Assistant Director (this title has a different meaning in the US film industry). After Suzuki's apprenticeship at Shochiku, he was poached by Nikkatsu Studios and quickly rose the ranks there.
Vick pointed out that we'd surely spot some of the signature style that Suzuki was still molding and would later become well-known for; however, he stressed that we'd only really see fraying at the seams at this point, as Suzuki was relatively new and still testing the system, wherein his work during the next decade would completely bust that cover wide open. Vick also mentioned that the Japanese film industry - and society as well - greatly emulated American culture during this time, and for these films noir, inspiration was definitely lifted from American pictures crafted in the same vein.
A very busy Passport to Darkness poster. Perhaps for a home entertainment release?
Passport to Darkness (1959)
This film begins - and ends - with a trombonist (Ryoji Hayama). During his group's set, it's announced that he'll soon marry the band's lead singer. Unfortunately, their wedded bliss is cut short when she disappears from the train on route to their honeymoon. The musician spends a drunken evening searching for her, only to stumble upon her dead body late that night in their apartment. This discovery hurls the husband on a frenzied, multifarious mission to track the culprit, leading him into the violent, turbulent world of drug dealing and addiction, which seems to operate out of every bar and entertainment venue he passes on the streets of Tokyo.
The large ensemble cast of Passport to Darkness is one reason I've no names to attach to some/basically any of the characters above; another reason is that I simply do not recall their names and IMDb, or any other sites for that matter, don't list the characters. Yes, the film is that rarely screened. (And my memory is that poor, sometimes.)
Please do not ask me to list these character's names, because I do not remember, and they are difficult/impossible to find online. (If anyone knows where I can locate more info, please let me know!)
The human clutter onscreen, coupled with my reliance on the subtitles, made things a bit too confusing and convoluted to keep (anywhere near) straight. With characters weaving in and out of the tale and an all-around shady air hanging over the picture, deciphering intentions proved rather difficult.
Despite the chaos, the movie invokes an undeniable energy. In the same vein as the American style, Passport to Darkness excels in creating tense atmospheres through excellently skilled cinematography, courtesy of Kazue Nagatsuka. For instance, the scene in which the musician finds his wife's body astounds visually; in his drunken haze, practically falling over himself trying to get into bed, he perks up when he spots a large shadow on the wall that is vaguely reminiscent of a slumped body. Not knowing whether this vision is a figment of his imagination or indeed real - the audience has no idea either - the musician hauls himself off the bed to investigate. To his horror, the outline indeed divulges the very real and very dead body of his wife.
Additional stunning examples of creating apprehension through imagery involve the drawing of vertical lines to confine and distance characters throughout the film. For example, at one point the trombonist is framed between the bars of his bed post, imprisoned in his drunken daze and the confusion of his wife's disappearance before the discovery jolts him out of his stupor. Another fantastic illustration occurs when the husband tries to extract information from a potential witness in a restaurant; he stands on the left in the foreground, and the bystander is framed on the right behind some sort of blinded window in another section of the venue. Visually, neither are on the same plane, and the added division the window creates separates the two, both physically and also in terms of solving the case, since it seems the musician isn't going to get straight or even honest answers to his questions from this character.
This location provided some wonderful opportunities for atmospheric cinematography.
Though I'm not the most well-versed in world cinema, I am aware that foreign industries explored content and themes that were forbidden by the PCA to even insinuate in American movies during the same time periods, in this case, the mid-late 50s. Thus, I'm not sure how shocking the stark portrayal of drug use (hard stuff like heroin), violence (especially the audacity of the massive drug ring the musician stumbles upon) and blatant inclusion of homosexuality (which involves the drug lord and also a group of characters) would have been to a Japanese audience in the late 50s, though I'm guessing that none of these subjects were terribly common sights on screen at the time.
The aforementioned topics provide Passport to Darkness with bountiful twists and turns that ultimately help propel the story along. From hidden heroin uncovered in the wife's purse, to a secret relationship reveal involving an addicted model (and an attempt to go clean), to yet another undisclosed bond that helps piece the puzzle together (and eventually leads to the film's climax on a tarmac), the drug plotline in particular provides enormous tension and action. Furthermore, a character who is involved with the gang and whose story evolves greatly, Kenny, is referred to as 'gay' in the subtitles, and his characterization does not shy away from that fact. In fact, Kenny and his friends make several appearances in the picture, though at the end it's Kenny, and his intimate relationship with the drug lord himself (and another character), who delivers the payoff during the film's final scenes.
This looks dangerous...
Thread throughout those titillating sequences is a large cast of characters exhibiting varying degrees of shade, whose stories and actions zip by or unfold slowly, the latter like that of the musician's best pal in the band. With these plotlines and characters in tow, Passport to Darkness speeds through the alleys of Tokyo at a breakneck pace, and though it's hard to piece it together at times, you can't help but watch, mesmerized and fascinated, by the energy the picture radiates.
INSANE Japanese poster for Eight Hours of Fear.
Eight Hours of Fear (1957)
After a landslide sidelines their train trip, a number of passengers hop a bus to link up with a connecting train the next day. A variety of colorful characters share the ride, including a prostitute, a young mother and her baby, a politically liberal couple, and a murderer escorted by a cop. In addition to the aging vehicle and difficult terrain, a dangerous duo on the run, fresh from a bank robbery, add to the trip's peril. Will the bus make it to its destination in time and with all aboard alive and safe?
Eight Hours of Fear begins with passengers disembarking a train late one evening and ends early the next morning. Though the film runs less than 90 minutes, it definitely feels like more than eight hours of action, courtesy the dramatic bus ride through the mountains, perilous on its own under normal circumstances, and the race against two bandits on the lose...in said mountains. Combine those two minute concerns with the fact that the extremely diverse cast of characters start to clash and grow restless and more impatient with each other and their circumstances by the minute, and you've certainly got the makings of a riveting tale.
Only part of the huge ensemble cast of Eight Hours of Fear.
In contrast to the meandering chaos of Passport to Darkness, Eight Hours of Fear concentrates its focus more so on the plight of the group through their journey in their highly contained and potentially fatal environment. This setting they all find themselves in is reminiscent of (relatively) singular set films such as The Narrow Margin (1952), Lifeboat (1944), and even Speed (1994), where the situation the crowd shares adds considerable tension largely due to their close proximity and dangerous predicament.
That being said, I certainly appreciated how the assorted passenger's relationships evolved over the course of the picture. The film's screenwriter (who is not credited on IMDb or in UCLA's synopsis of the movie) did a sound job establishing several secondary characters with a variety of qualities that are bound to clash and even cozy up, and the way he/she steadily built up these scenes and relationships was really quite remarkable for a film with as many moving parts as this.
In particular, two sequences highlighting the ensemble and/or characters' growing sympathy and understanding of each other stand out to me. The first occurs when most of those on the bus valiantly come together in defense of the young mother with the baby when one of the convicts forces them to clear a blocked passage on the road so they can continue their journey. (Side note: The number of times that image on screen included a close-up of a gun being held to a baby's head - at least three - was...at least three times too many for my comfort or sanity.) The second scene concerns a murderer who was being transported by a cop and a prostitute, both of whom couldn't have been more disgusted by each other in the beginning, but by the end they develop a mutual respect for each other after they both carry out courageous acts to save those aboard the bus.
That would be the murderer, front and center, whose character definitely evolves over the course of the film.
Suzuki's direction also caught my attention here. From the bold imagery (cough *above noted baby and gun scenes* cough) to the detailed consideration paid to various character's evolutions, both personally and within the larger scope of the situation, the director revealed his confident and steady grip on the story at hand; I firmly believe Suzuki's brash, yet assured supervision helped make Eight Hours of Fear a relatively easy film to understand and get carried away by despite all its moving parts, which is quite an achievement for one of the director's first features.
How to Score a Passport to Darkness in Eight Hours of Fear (Kind Of Works...Right?)
As I pointed out, Passport to Darkness and Eight Hours of Fear unfortunately don't get to see the light of day very often (and the same can be said for a handful of Suzuki's other early films). That being said, I heartily recommend both if they ever cross your path, especially if you happen to be a fan of film noir.