Good Cop, Bad Cop

The Japanese film poster for RED HANDKERCHIEF (1964)

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.

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Balm for the Soul

The Japanese poster for The Burmese Harp (1956)

In 1955 Kon Ichikawa was a well established filmmaker in Japan who was mostly known for satiric comedies like Mr. Pu (1953) and A Billionaire (1954) and the occasional literary adaptation like Young People (1952). His work was still unknown outside of his own country but that would change with his 27th film, The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956). It would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan but also one that would bring him international acclaim. “That was the first film I really felt I had to make,” Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Richie.   Continue reading