Red Handkerchief (Toshio Masuda, Japan, 1964)

During a police interrogation detective Mikami (Yujiro Ishihara) shoots dead a suspected drug mule when the elderly man grabs his partner Ishizuka’s (Hideaki Nitani) gun. Understandably, the dead man’s beautiful young daughter (Ruriko Asoaka), with whom Mikami has fallen in love, wants nothing more to do with him and facing investigation from his superiors Mikami retires from the force. Four years later, working as construction worker on a dam in the frozen wastes of Hokkaido Mikami is visited by a detective (Kaneko Nobuo) who has quite the tale to tell. It seems that in the aftermath of the shooting Mikami’s partner, Ishizuka, abruptly quit the force and became a rich and successful businessman with a department store. How on earth did he manage that on a cop’s salary? Is it possible that Ishizuka was bribed by those behind the drug mule (i.e., the Yakuza) and that Mikami himself was deliberately manipulated by his partner into shooting the old man to stop him talking? Reluctantly, Mikami returns to the city to uncover the truth but his quest becomes complicated when he discovers that the woman he loved is now Ishizuka’s wife.

Although 1950’s teen idol Ishihara (brother of Tokyo’s nationalist governor and filmmaker Shintaro Ishihara) is not my idea of a leading man (here he’s a sort of Cliff Richard with a sneer) this is a clever, well plotted and exceptionally well crafted story that oozes emotion thanks to the onscreen chemistry of the three leads and director Masuda’s  outstanding mise-en-scene. I was particularly struck by an example of this near the film’s climax as Mikami and Ruriko finally acknowledge their love for each other and ace cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine frames a shabby motel so it resembles, of all things, a church. Such impressionistic moments are everywhere in Red Handkerchief (another example is when Asoaka takes off in her husband’s car to meet Mikami and her agitated mental state seems paralleled by the streetlights rushing by reflected in the windscreen) and it’s largely what elevates the movie way above that of the usual Japanese imitation of an American crime movie. By way of comparison if you ever wondered what a glossy, hard-boiled crime thriller in colour and widescreen directed by Douglas Sirk might have looked like I suspect the answer might be something like this. Ishihara and Asaoka had already been paired together in numerous Japanese movies by this point and the pair have an easy onscreen chemistry.  And Hideaki Nitani is an excellent foil as Mikami’s partner. A seemingly smooth operator whose real nature gradually becomes apparent not because of any shame at what he’s done but because the truth threatens to rob him of the only woman he’s ever loved. I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s combination of a love triangle within a murder mystery and the climax, in which the location of the fatal shooting is revisited and restaged and the truth emerges, proves agreeably gripping. Harumi Ibe’s score  – an evocative acoustic number (the opening credits come up over a close up of a moodily lit pair of hands strumming a guitar) that evokes Ishiira’s longing for Ruriko which is the film’s emotional core -is another plus. You wouldn’t expect a crime thriller to pause just to allow its leading man to strum his guitar and sing a few songs as he strolls the back alleys of Yokohama or relaxes in a smoke-filled bar but this is exactly what Red Handkerchief does and Ishihara’s Enka ballads, far from slowing the movie down, prove a perfect fit for a movie that’s as much about mood as it is the plot. Excellent stuff.

Safari 5000 (Koreyoshi Kurahara, Japan, 1969)

In dangerous winter weather obsessive rally driver Godai (Yujiro Ishihara) narrowly avoids death after a disastrous shunt during the Monte Carlo race. After recovery Godai sets his sights on the big African rally in which he’ll compete with his old adversary and best friend Pierre (Alain Cuny). But the wives of both men (Ruriko Asaoka and Emmanuelle Riva) are sick of accompanying them around the world and never knowing if they’ll come back alive and discuss divorcing their men even as the big race begins.

Nikkatsu’s answer to Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. An impressive international cast comprising Yujiro Ishihara, Ruriko Asaoka, Emmanuelle Riva, Alain Cuny, Jean-Claude Droudot, Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune star in this 3 hr epic, complete with its own intermission in which a so-so script is elevated by outstanding physical production. Very much of its time in trying to get Japanese stars into international settings, Safari 5000 is an effective hybrid of race track and rally action with the usual soap opera-ish subplots taking second place to the action as anxious wives and girlfriends fret about their men. And some of the cars on show here are quite spectacular. Ishira and company are filmed on location at actual rallies, mingling amongst huge crowds of spectators and seemingly participating in the races. It’s as if the film crew are shooting their footage with the actors right alongside the real drivers, races and pit stops. None of the stars are seen here in car sets on a studio soundstage emoting in front of a back projection screen. It’s all done across a variety of spectacular European and African locations so the overall effect is completely convincing, especially in the movie’s second half, given over almost wholly to the African rally.

Less successful is a script that features the usual cliches of hard driving, hard drinking men while annoyingly squandering the talents of its two luminous female stars (Asaoka made a number of films with Ishihara and she was terrific in the splendid Red Handkerchief) but her and Riva’s role as the unhappy wives are so insipidly written that a couple of sub-plots set up in the film’s first act in which Asaoka goes off with a French fashion designer are simply outrageously abandoned shortly after. If I tell you that the highlight of Asaoka’s presence in the film’s second half is presenting her husband with a hand-knitted jumper to keep him warm(!) you get a sense of just how short-changed the female roles are. But even if the characters are a bit thin the film evokes a real sense of camaraderie between the men at the centre of the action and conveys the appeal of this adrenaline fuelled lifestyle so well that you can understand why its characters are as committed to it as they are. With vivid widescreen cinematography (Kurahara gets some moodily evocative shots of Ishihara and co as they drive across Africa) a good pace and a strong score from Toshiro Mayuzumi, there’s oodles of documentary-style footage of behind-the-scenes prep and on the road action that’ll warm the heart of any petrolhead. And the climax, as Ishihara and Cluny end up in a neck and neck race to the finish line is quite compelling. This was the number one box office hit in Japan in 1969 only for the film to then vanish off the face of the earth for over 40 years due to unspecified copyright issues. What those issues were I have no idea although they seem to have been resolved now.

I Hate But Love (Koreyoshi Kurahara, Japan, 1962)

A popular TV star named Daisaku (Yujiro Ishihara) frustrated with his shallow lifestyle agrees to drive a knackered old jeep 800 miles across country to a remote village and deliver it to the boyfriend of a woman whose relationship with her partner has been conducted entirely by letter. Pursued by his girlfriend/secretary Noriko (Ruriko Asoaka) who thinks the star has taken leave of his senses the pair rediscover the meaning of love even as their trip becomes a huge media sensation on the nightly news and their journey is constantly interrupted by reporters who won’t leave them alone.

Agreeable Ishihara/Asoaka vehicle, gorgeously shot in Technicolor, offering a generally pacy, intelligent examination of two souls rediscovering themselves whilst shedding the accoutrements of a celebrity lifestyle (not the least of which is Ishihara’s gorgeous, open topped silver Jag). There are sharp, pungent observations of life in the media spotlight here but the film is too shrewd and too knowing to succumb to a trendy city life=bad, simple country life=good formula. In fact, I Hate But Love unexpectedly skewers as sterile and inhuman both the materialism of Daisaku and his manager/lover Noriko and the non-physical, pen-pal relationship of the couple he’s delivering the jeep for. Far be it from me to reveal the film’s solution to the dilemma faced by its protagonists but it’s as earthy and spontaneous as one could wish! The many handheld location shots of the two stars driving around the city (and frequently surrounded by huge crowds) are quite fascinating in their immediacy. The colour photography adds enormously to the appeal of watching two big celebrities out and about in the real world.