In the opening minutes of A Colt Is My Passport (1967), director Takeshi Nomura is coy with his utilisation of cinematic language to build a world. Cars weave through Tokyo’s wide streets, revving up unforgiving hills. From the backseat, the camera picks up the back of dark heads of hair. The modern European viewer, raised on a diet of American crime films, is forced to reorient their expectations of place. This is the fault of Film Noir. It’s true that Nomura captures something of the Tokyo environment that is unmistakably similar to the endless maze of California roads defining the James M. Cain-inspired American crime films of the 1940s and 1950s. Smokey Japanese tea houses provide an apt setting by themselves, but the so-called Film Noir invites analysis of hybridised national cinemas. Noir usually represents a German Expressionism-tinged film, often made by a European filmmaker in America. But The Big Heat (1953), a mystery epic filled with dutch angles and stock types, couldn’t be further from Andre De Toth’s con-procedural Crime Wave (released the same year), which has an almost newsreel-like realism in its capturing of the L.A .streets. Their genre definition is limiting.
Much the same can be said for the Japanese Nikkatsu Noir. Inspired, no doubt, by American crime films, Nikkatsu’s films are often brief and low budget, with a go-for-broke attitude that results in bold aesthetic choices. Pick up any of these movies, and you’re likely to have a good time in some way or another. Yet it is this same vibrancy which makes them difficult to classify by any strict genre definitions (and Noir is the vaguest of all genres). That is what makes Nomura’s film so hypnotic. A Colt Is My Passport represents a supreme tension between American and Japanese Noir, and asks questions about the past and future of transnational cinema.
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A Colt Is My Passport opens with cool and detached voiceover, showing elements of Yakuza boss Shimazu’s (Kanjuro Arashi) daily regiment, an alien voice addressing the audience with the details of a con: “the car windows are bulletproof.” Three minutes later, from the top of an office building, Senzaki (Hideaki Esumi) reveals himself to be plotting treason. A moment later, the hitman Shuji joins him on screen, with Joe Shishido walking in cheeks-first as ever. As monosylabic as Alain Delon, the hard-man persona Shishido perfected in Sejun Suzuki’s noir films reaches a point of darkness. The kill is the only thing on his mind. Like many films in the Nikkatsu Noir cycle, Japan is presented, in A Colt Is My Passport, as a vast corporation. Crime syndicates are nothing but separate departments. The efficiently-delivered killings are no different to a dispatch in the boardroom. Silently, Shuji prepares his sniper and delivers the hit. Much like French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Nomura shows the bare elements of the scene. The gun, the victim, the plain walls that surround him. It pulls the pop-art from the genre. This minimalism has the impact of the colt.
Nomura is considered a workman-like director. He languished in TV and is often called “invisible” by critics. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it wasn’t patently false. Nomura directed not only several samurai movies, but also the Shishido Western Quick Draw Joe. That knowledge may unlock another level of the subtle genre confusion that’s a part of A Colt Is My Passport’s pattern, and feed the “everything is a Western” genre conspiracists. As both sides of the Yakuza come after Shun (Jerry Fujio), one thinks of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), itself a western remake of Yojimbo (1961), in which Fujio has a small role. The circularity doesn’t end there. When they hiding out in a cramped attic, Shun plays a song on guitar to calm the nerves, like Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. Fujio was himself a pop star, and both scenes pause the narrative action to highlight what their stars do best. The hotel bar is presented like a western saloon. The camera will wheel into Shishido’s face like a Serge Leone extreme close-up. Even the opening title music has the honk of a ride into town.
Continue down the path of transnational transactions, and you’ll never reach the bottom. One breakneck car chase sequence anticipates the guerilla urban-chase sequences of Bullitt and The French Connection by several years. Shishido, who famously enhanced his floundering star presence by undergoing cheek augmentation, turned himself into one of cinema’s most recognisable faces. His literal creation of a new persona, even basing his movements and voice on Burt Lancaster, is a logical extension of the kind of shift that Humphrey Bogart went through in his early days in Hollywood, changing his voice to develop the hard-boiled character of Bogie that moved him from supporting player to leading man. Shishido took the next logical step (one which recalls Seconds’ face-swap horror, released a year before A Colt Is My Passport) by molding everything about himself to the audience’s desires.
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Indeed, sex plays an important if subdued part of A Colt Is My Passport. In the hyper-masculine world of Yakuza business dealings, it’s only in the Hotel Nagisakan where the pair repeatedly hide out, that women are even glimpsed. Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), the waitress with whom Shuji has a dalliance, is not a femme fatale as such. She is powerless, caught inbetween various sides as a mere pawn. Mournfully, she delivers her feelings to Shuji while staring out of a car window. Rain can be heard hitting the bonnet while she speaks, and the camera picks up the reflection of her face in the window, as though she is separate from her body. It isn’t clear if Shuji is listening. And why should he? Nomura preempts her future with the angry old lady figure who runs the hotel. Repeatedly, Mina is treated as a lesser class, and even a harlot. “Buddy, don’t believe her if she says she’s running away with you. She always stays behind at the last minute. Those raised here can’t go anywhere else.” This recasts the femme fatale not as wicked temptress of Double Indemnity, but as someone whose desires and responsibilities are so confused as to force her to lie.
From the early sniper scene, Nomura emphasises frames, targets and windows. A scope-shaped attic window shatters, and as though it has given Nomura access to shoot from outside, the characters look like they have a target on their backs. Playful instincts appear everywhere. If Seijun Suzuki’s films are the most acknowledged Japanese Noir, with their swingin’ Austin Powers madness and music video pop cool, Nomura achieves a synthesis of pure style that is ultimately meditative. Suzuki utilised Shishido’s cheeks like a weapon of heightened reality, but Numura shoots the bursting pores of his augmented skin with a clarity that asks, “What is it like to be you?” A Colt Is My Passport is a simple, predictable film in many ways, but each scene has so many layers of reference, irony, and pure visual skill, as Nomura exposes the limits and borders of the genre. He has the passport to cinema.
A Colt Is My Passport is available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.