Among the major film studios in Japan, Nikkatsu is generally regarded as the oldest but it almost didn’t survive the post-WW2 years after shutting down production in 1942. When it relaunched in 1954, audience tastes had changed and so had the moviegoing public, which was younger and hungry for films that reflected the problems, attitudes and pop culture of their generation. As a result, the studio began to churn out different kinds of films – yakuza and cop thrillers, youth rebellion dramas and frenetic comedies/musicals – that were partially inspired by American genre films and the rise of rebel icons like James Dean and Elvis Presley. Often categorized as “Nikkatsu Action Cinema,” these films experienced a surge of popularity in the late 50s as such directors as Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, Koreyoshi Kurahara and Toshio Masuda emerged as the most creative filmmakers at Nikkatsu during the post-war new wave. Masuda, in particular, was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers at the studio and helped actor Yujiro Ishihara achieve major stardom after their first collaboration Rusty Knife (1958), a gritty crime drama about a volatile street tough who crosses the mob. They went on to make 25 features together but, curiously enough, one of their most successful films, Akai Hankachi (Red Handkerchief, 1964), is almost forgotten and difficult to see outside of Japan.
Part of the film’s relative obscurity may be due to the fact that it is not a typical Nikkatsu action thriller. Yes, there are roaming yakuza gangs in Red Handkerchief but they are a minor concern. A doomed romantic triangle is the main focus and the movie becomes a brooding soap opera which is filmed as if it were a Douglas Sirk noir with elements of a police procedural drama, a morality tale about corruption and power in post-war Japan and a crime thriller with musical interludes, provided by Ishihara as Mikami, the singer/guitar-playing protagonist. Masuda presents the narrative almost like a three-act play with a defining incident taking place at the beginning which affects the futures of three characters, then a middle section where one of the three is persuaded to investigate the past and a finale in which the truth is finally revealed to tragic affect.
The opening of the film introduces us to Mikami and his cop partner Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) as they try to break up a local drug ring. Hiraoka (Shin Morikawa), a street food vendor, is hauled in for questioning as a suspect and when Mikami goes to inform his daughter Reiko (Ruriko Asaoka), he is quickly smitten by her beauty and flirtatious demeanor. Unfortunately, Reiko’s father is killed by Mikami in a shootout when the former grabs Ishizuka’s gun and tries to escape. The two cops are investigated by their superiors for mishandling the situation and are not charged but Reiko angrily denounces Mikami. As a result, both cops leave the force with Mikami going off the grid to work as an itinerant worker in a remote rural area.
Flash forward to four years later. Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko), a detective from Mikami’s former precinct, tracks the ex-cop down at a mining site where he works as a driller. Tsuchiya is still investigating the suspicious death of Hiraoka and suspects that Ishizuka may have manipulated the situation. Part of Tsuchiya’s reasoning is based on the fact that Ishizuka is now a rich and successful businessman (he owns a chain of grocery stores) and is married to Reiko, the victim’s daughter. Mikami is clearly troubled by the news and begins to slowly emerge from his guilt-ridden exile to find out what really happened four years earlier. His arrival back in Yokohama creates problems for Ishizuka and especially Reiko, who begins to realize that Mikami is a truly honorable person while her husband may indeed be hiding something.
The third act of Red Handkerchief has Ishizuka at first trying to bribe Mikami with a job offer in Saigon and then using his yazuka connections to threaten his former partner into leaving Yokohama. At the same time, Reiko learns that her father had been reluctantly involved with a local drug gang and that his “accidental” death was staged by Ishizuka without Mikami’s knowledge. This revelation drives Reiko into Mikami’s arms but he is resolute in his determination to expose Ishizuka, telling her, “There are things that a man can’t forget until I’ve settled them. I can’t even kiss you.” By this point, you can guess that things are not going to end well.
Part of the appeal of Red Handkerchief is due to the excellent ensemble acting. Ruriko Asaoka is both sympathetic and alluring as the deceived Reiko, first appearing as a happy-go-lucky factory worker and later as the glamorous mink-wearing wife of a self-made tycoon. Nobuo Kaneko as the intrepid Tuschiya also impresses as the nagging conscience that prods Mikami into action and Hideaki Nitani makes an utterly compelling, charismatic villain – handsome, slick in manner and completely contemptible in his self-aggrandizing attempts at fame, fortune and power. His inferiority complex drives him to ruin Mikami’s career, steal his potential girlfriend and later proclaim proudly “I’m a man of great value, a winner!” The only thing that redeems him is his genuine love for Reiko.
Still, it is Yujiro Ishihara’s performance as the haunted, disgraced Mikami that makes Red Handkerchief a standout entry in both his and Masuda’s filmographies. His gradual transformation from a remorseful wanderer into a formidable avenger is fascinating to watch and he ends up being romanticized as a virtuous loner not unlike Humphrey Bogart’s characters in certain crime dramas. Adding to the appeal are a few melancholy ballads performed by Ishihara, who was also a huge pop star, and one of the songs, “Red Handkerchief,” is a version of a famous Japanese folk song that became the movie’s title.
Ishihara was probably at the peak of his fame when he made Red Handkerchief and shortly afterwards Hollywood came calling with an offer to appear in the all-star comedy epic Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). Nevertheless, he preferred working in Japan and returned to take on more adult roles that were a departure from his early screen persona as an alienated youth in the James Dean mode. Some of his later work includes the true-life epic about the building of the Kurobe Dam, Kurobe no Taiyo (Tunnel to the Sun, 1968) and Eiko e no 5,000 Kiro (Safari 5000, 1969), in which he plays a race car driver in the Paris-Dakar rally. Yet, it was his first major role in Kurutta Kajitsu (Crazed Fruit, 1956) as a cynical, hedonist leader of a decadent teenage crowd that connected with audiences his own age and made him the poster boy for Japan’s disenchanted post-war youth. Like some of the screen characters he played, Ishihara liked to gamble, drink and party all night and his excessive lifestyle eventually caught up with him; he died in 1987 at age 52 from liver cancer.
As of this writing, director Toshio Masuda is still alive at 95 with more than 90 film and TV credits on his resume. He would helm some of Nikkatsu’s most popular films such as Kyo ni ikiru (We Live Today, 1959), a variation on the 1953 western Shane, the period gangster saga Hana to Ryu (1962), Kurenai no Nagareboshi (Velvet Hustler, 1967) featuring Tetsuya Watari as a yazuka hitman, and Burai Yori Daikanbu (Outlaw: Gangster VIP, 1968), which spawned a six-film series. After leaving Nikkatsu in 1968, Masuda went freelance, collaborating with Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) on the Japanese sequences of the 1970 Hollywood war epic, Tora! Tora! Tora! and directing such diverse films as the apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974) and the award-winning historic epic The Battle of Port Arthur (1980), set during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
I have not seen all of those but any Masuda film is well worth seeing and Red Handkerchief remains a personal favorite for its moody ambience and moral confusion, stylish color cinematography by Shigeyoshi Mine, the melancholy music score by Harumi Ibe (the title credit sequence takes place over a close-up of hands strumming a guitar to a Flamenco-style theme song), and homages, whether intentional or not, by Masuda to other filmmakers such as the French New Wavers as reflected in atmospheric on-location shooting and unusual point-of-view shots (a precinct interrogation scene, a view of Reiko and Ishizuka through a car windshield as they flee the city). Or hand-held action scenes (a savage fight between Miskami and his nemesis inside Ishizuke’s posh, modernist home) and the odd exotic detail (a nightclub striptease sequence). Then there is the famous final scene which mirrors the ending of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) but with a reverse gender twist.
Currently there is no domestic release of Red Handkerchief available on any format in the U.S. However, you can find copies of other Masuda movies like Rusty Knife (available from The Criterion Collection in their Nikkatsu Noir collection, Eclipse Series 17) and Red Pier (available from Arrow Video in their Nikkatsu Diamond Guys collection, Volume 1) from online sellers but Red Handkerchief continues to be missing in action.
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