To the uninitiated and devoted fans alike, Japanese noir can be a whirlwind of action and suspense. And the master of this style, which was dubbed “borderless action” (mukokuseki akushun) is the director Seijun Suzuki. Known for his iconic movies Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, both vivid and dazzling in terms of action and cinematography with convoluted plots, Suzuki’s appeal to Western audiences on these terms only represents a part of his overall vision. The nihilistic cool factor in his films led audiences to ask difficult questions of society and themselves. With Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Suzuki shows how these factors became the groundwork for future classics.
Take Aim at the Police Van starts out in tense fashion, as a van full of prisoners are watched by guard Daijirô Tamon (Michitarô Mizushima). The highway is blocked by a truck, and a sniper takes aim at the van. The attack leaves two inmates dead, resulting in Tamon taking the blame and receiving a six-month suspension. He eventually tracks down the friends and lovers of the two victims, and stumbles onto a conspiracy larger than he could’ve imagined. Along the way, Tamon crosses paths with a former inmate named Goro Kashima (Shôichi Ozawa) — who was on the bus — along with a mysterious woman named Yûko Hamajima (Misako Watanabe), who is connected to a company that’s being investigated. As Tamon pieces things together, his determination to find the truth likens him to a locomotive speeding down the tracks, which comes into play in the movie’s second half.
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Take Aim at the Police Van demonstrates the early underpinnings of Suzuki’s style. Nikkatsu, the oldest movie studio in Japan at the time, made crime films in order to connect with youthful moviegoers, who were undoubtedly grappling with many societal issues in the wake of World War II. Suzuki seized upon this mood by reworking Take Aim at the Police Van’s script with with Shin’ichi Sekizawa, who put it together based on a story by Kazuo Shimada, a former war reporter who became famous for writing crime fiction that would be fodder for numerous films and television series in the 1950s and 1960s. The studio, looking to churn out film after film, regarded these stories as B-movies and in turn ordered less supervision on the sets. Incidentally, Suzuki had creative freedom and could depict an everyman like Tamon, who — despite his forthright and decent demeanor — becomes a hardboiled vigilante. Suzuki also incorporated visual cues that hearken back to the same artistic style that would go on to inspire manga — kamishibai, or street theater that often featured stories with moral lessons and picture cards.
Casting Mizushima as Tamon forTake Aim at the Police Van was a unique move for Suzuki, as the director would go on to use younger and more striking actors as protagonists in future films. But Mizushima’s demeanor and vigor makes him the anchor in a movie that is extremely fast-paced, clocking in at a total of 79 minutes. Tamon’s relentlessness is striking to various characters, and he fascinates Yûko (the film’s antihero) primarily because of the decency shown in their first encounter. As the story progresses, Yûko becomes more involved in the affair and finds herself caught between helping Tamon clear his name and revealing her own deeper connections. The characters’ physical attraction is evident in Take Aim at the Police Van and supports a smaller narrative. Tamon, being a bachelor, proclaims that he’s not equipped to deal with the women of the time, presumably because of his age and temperament. Still, most of the women in Suzuki’s film go out of their way to help him.
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In Take Aim at the Police Van’s opening act, Suzuki utilizes the aforementioned influence of kamishibai, with a camera trailing behind a police truck and alternating shots of the sniper underlining the impending danger. Various signs also link to another thematic element, “staying on course,” evidenced by a “no U-turns” patch on Goro’s handbag. Suzuki also uses the night as a looming character throughout, most notably as a bookend to the film’s opening. Plus, the director conceals tension with comedic touches via quirky, tongue-in-cheek dialogue — a way to connect with Western audiences — such as when Tamon meets Yuko for the first time while she performs archery. A blueprint for Suzuki’s later masterpieces, Take Aim at the Police Van is a solid cinematic vehicle full of suspense and surprises.
Take Aim at the Police Van is available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.
Christopher A. Smith (@infinitewords14) is a freelance writer and a New York City native. He is also an avid visitor of museums and galleries along with being a lover of different genres of cinema from independent film to classics. Find more of his writing HERE.