There is a Japanese term, Mukokuseki, which translates as “stateless” or “borderless”. The term currently applies to anime and manga, where the features of the fictional characters are deliberately designed not to evoke a specific ethnicity. The term has been used previously for a series of films produced by the studio Nikkatsu for their action films produced in the late Fifties through Sixties, aimed for a younger, more westernized audience.

Just the title A Colt is my Passport (Colt wa ore no passport, 1967) evokes the ideas of gun violence and travel. In originally defining Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton limited themselves to American films made between 1941 through 1953. A handful of European films, primarily made in France, were grudgingly included. Since the time of publication, the definition of Film Noir has gone through several mutations with the inclusion or exclusion of films. One of the significant differences is that the filmmakers discussed by Borde and Chaumeton were making films grouped as part of a genre after the fact, while younger directors were consciously making films that recalled the older films in style and substance. Takashi Nomura’s film is almost self-referential in not wanting to be thought of as strictly a Japanese film.

What could be less Japanese than having two guys named Joe and Jerry as the stars of your film? Chipmunk-cheek Jo Shishido, established as an action star, is often billed with the more western and masculine Joe as his personal name. The Eurasian Shigeki Fujio has professionally been known as Jerry or small variations of that name. The two play a professional hit man and his partner who have been hired by a gangster to murder the leader of a rival gang. Following the successful killing, the two rival gangs meet for a truce and to join forces. Joe and Jerry are in turn to be eliminated. Any plans for the two to leave Japan are complicated.

Hired killers are a staple of Film Noir, with The Killers (1946) and This Gun for Hire (1942) cited by Bored and Chaumeton. The transnationalism of the hired killer in film was firmly established by Jean-Pierre Melville by titling his film, Le Samourai (1967). Never mind that the film used fake Orientalism by a French director who claimed an American family name. While several Asian filmmakers can be cited, Hong Kong’s Johnny To and Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanarurang have both made several films with the hit man as the central protagonist.

At this time, scholarship on Asian Film Noir is incomplete, and primarily devoted to film generally defined as Neo-Noir. One has to sift through a selection of academic books and online articles. While there is one book specifically about noir films from Hong Kong, most Asian countries are covered in anthology chapters. In his essay on Japanese film noir, David Desser reminds the reader that just as the filmmakers of classic film noir were grouped as such years after their films were made, the Japanese films, primarily from Nikkatsu Studios, were also considered noir well after production. The main difference being that the Japanese filmmakers had some familiarity with American film noir, although the distribution of those films in Japan was inconsistent.

These films made a point not only of adapting American genre filmmaking, but deliberately eschewing Japanese tropes. The goal of Nikkatsu was to make films for an international audience. Ironically, it was the local market that embraced these “borderless” films, while the international market preferred the period costume dramas. One does not have to look hard to see that the hitman is a contemporary version of the ronin, the masterless samurai, from the period films. The biggest change is in depicting the change in some of the protocols and codes. In the various versions of The 47 Ronin, those rules are understood by all concerned and are considered inflexible. In the Japanese noir films, it is frequently the crime bosses whose loyalty to those in their “family” lasts only as long as it is to their advantage. While Japanese culture emphasizes being part of a group, in Japanese film noir, there is only loneliness and death.

 

 

Peter Nellhaus