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A colt is my passport – Nikkatsu studio

Gang warfare… this film tells the story of a hitman played by Jo Shishido, hired to kill a gang leader in the suburbs of Tokyo. After having completed his mission with the help of his illustrious accomplice, Shu Shiozaki, Shuji Kaminura flees the scene of execution to escape the vengeance of the rival gang. At first, with the help of their client, the pair are told they will be allowed to use their passports as permits to leave the country. As certain events come to pass, however, they are forced instead to rely on their instincts to survive. The plot of the film suddenly changes pace, when the commander of the two assassins turns against them. With an opportunity to put an end once and for all to the rivalry between the two gangs, Kamimura’s client, particularly disturbed by cold effectiveness of his employee’s methods, reaches out to his enemy to avenge the death and honor of its murdered leader. Trapped within this fatal scheme, our two protagonists find themselves in a mad race to leave Japan, and on the way encounter a character named Mina, who assists in their escape. The relationship that develops between Mina and Shuji is one of hope, of troubled loved – and especially of loyalty.

The soundtrack and cinematography of “A colt is my passport” was been inspired as much by other Nikkatsu-produced film noirs as by Italian spaghetti westerns. The reel includes several striking moments, including a powerful final showdown: an epic shootout filmed in a series of traveling shots. Under the direction of Takashi Nomura, this Nikkatsu film noir is truly a gangster film in that its emotions and violence are served ice-cold. The only heat emerges in the form of the fraternal bond between Kamimura and Shiozaki.

“A colt is my passport” is a work which exemplifies the image of a certain genre, reflecting an era in Japanese society and culture which glorified gang influence. It is set in a Japan torn by territorial disputes and power struggles between rival clans and families. The only possible path for the characters we watch is to descend further and further into a dead-end – doomed to perish in an inevitable darkness. Mina is perhaps the character that best represents this fate. As Shuji Kaminura wisely tells her, “Mina, there is only survival. Nothing else…”

From a technical standpoint, the film employs a striking black and white aesthetic that well reflects the beauty and elegance of its characters. One can almost perceive a sense of dandyism in the the outfits worn by Joe Shishido. It is no coincidence that he became an icon of Japanese cinema, as well as one of Nikkatsu Studio’s leading actors.

But in fact, what has remained of Nikkatsu Studios? How has it become a reference, if not the signature, of post-war Japanese cinematography?

The reputation of Nikkatsu Studios is owed to a number of factors: its eye for great film auteurs (Kenji Mizoguchi in the beginning of his career, Yuzo Kawashima, Shohei Imamura), its position in the late 1950s as a beacon of modernity, and its unique interpretation of the gangster genre.

“A colt is my passport” was released in 1967 and distributed by Nikkatsu Studios: the oldest Japanese film and television studio, which opened in 1912. Generally, their productions followed the tradition of samurai films, with a light touch of influence from Italian westerns, drawing from the work of Morricone and trends in dramatic cinema. In the 1960s, Nikkatsu Studios began to develop its films to engage a younger, and more rebellious audience. Their projects began to thematically reflect the desires and aspirations of young people at the time, transferred onto the screen by filmmakers.

Beyond its cinematography, “A colt is my passport” highlights a key moment of development in fillm in the period of post-war Japan. From the 1950’s to 1970’s, Nikkatsu Studios became a blockbuster machine in Japanese cinema, fueled by its reputation and network of distribution. It was so influential that its commercial success allowed the biggest stars of its time to be hired for  their projects.

“Nikkatsu worked by combining the latest in up-and-coming masters, genres and series, always  focusing on what is fresh. By doing so, Imamura was able to create critical reflections on Japan working in the structure of a large studio, while Suzuki, as we all know, reinvented the yakuza genre, giving it a form that Vincente Minnelli would not have discouraged. But Nikkatsu’s box office success was also in part due to the skillful recruitment of a host of talented leading men which included Yujiro Ishihara in the 1960’s (seen on the poster for the film Stroller), Akira Kobayashi, Jo Shishido, Tetsuya Watari, and later Tatsuya Fuji (otherwise known for the glory he attained in starring in Nagisa Oshima’s The Realm of the Senses) – as well as the queens of his screen, who including Naomi Tani, Junko Miyashita and Meiko Kaji in the next decade. Such skillful actors in impeccable costumes, performing with such grace, would give way to actresses who defined a key moment in cinematic history when softcore porn was invented.”(Stephen Sarrazin).

Unfortunately, this trend would not survive the 1970s and the emergence of television. The economic structures that held classic cinema in place were shaken by the economic and social upheavals provoked by television’s rise. More specifically, the popularity and commercial success declined so much, that it could no longer sustain itself as the industry it had been over the last two decades. In Japanese society, sex and violence became the sociological vectors that defined popular cinema – especially sex, with the movement of sexual liberation. It was in this context that Nikkatsu Studios began to increasingly turn to the production of softcore porn, with its “pink film” series.

The last development to definitively topple Nikkatsu Studios in the 1980s was the emergence of home video formats. Video cassettes, later DVDs, and today, TV-on-demand are new forms of media that have revolutionized the film industry and its every aspect. Adaptation to these changes is forced and continues today, as studios continually develop new commercial survival strategies in constantly updated cultural and artistic landscapes. The latest challenges are the internet and the cinematographic possibilities it offers, which have forced film studios into an extremely vulnerable position after having enjoyed for so long the power to sense, dictate, and tame audience expectations. Paradoxically, in Japan, where the independent scene emerges, there is an strong argument, and sufficient reason to believe that what is known as “citizen cinema” today prioritizes audience engagement, rather than the requisite authorial voice to open the door to dialogue.

“A colt is my passport… Now calling Nikkatsu Studios for immediate departure…”

Sanza Bulaya

Translation – Ritz Wu