Japanese Noir

Japanese Noir

22 Episodes

Just as postwar disillusionment infiltrated American pop culture and found its way to Hollywood in the form of film noir, so it did in Japan, where a wave of edgy, existential crime dramas spread like a shadow across the Land of the Rising Sun. With STRAY DOG, Akira Kurosawa applied the chiaroscuro visual style and hard-boiled sensibility of American noir to a corrosive portrait of Japanese society—anticipating a profusion of fatalistic thrillers and policiers that would prove wildly popular throughout the 1950s and ’60s. The so-called “mukokuseki akushun” (“borderless action”) film was a particular specialty of Nikkatsu, the boundary-pushing studio where renegade directors like Seijun Suzuki (YOUTH OF THE BEAST), Shohei Imamura (PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS), Toshio Masuda (RUSTY KNIFE), and Takashi Nomura (A COLT IS MY PASSPORT) frequently jazzed up the pulp formula with elements of the western, comedy, gangster, and teen-rebel genres. Featuring modernist-cool masterpieces like PALE FLOWER and BRANDED TO KILL as well as ripe-for-discovery gems like ZERO FOCUS and INTIMIDATION, these cruel stories of guilt and desperation are a window into the dark heart of postwar Japan.

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Japanese Noir
  • Introducing Japanese Noir

    Episode 1

    The following interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith was recorded in 2020.

  • Stray Dog

    Episode 2

    Directed by Akira Kurosawa • 1949 • Japan
    Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

    A bad day gets worse for young detective Murakami when a pickpocket steals his gun on a hot, crowded bus. Desperate to right the wrong, he goes undercover, scavenging Tokyo’s sweltering streets for the stray dog w...

  • Black River

    Episode 3

    Directed by Masaki Kobayashi • 1956 • Japan

    Perhaps Masaki Kobayashi's most sordid film, BLACK RIVER examines the rampant corruption on and around U.S. military bases in Japan following World War II. Kobayashi spirals out from the story of a love triangle that develops between a good-natured stu...

  • I Am Waiting

    Episode 4

    Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara • 1957 • Japan

    In Koreyoshi Kurahara's directorial debut, rebel matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara (fresh off the sensational Crazed Fruit) stars as a restaurant manager and former boxer who saves a beautiful, suicidal club hostess (Mie Kitahara) trying to escape the clu...

  • Stakeout

    Episode 5

    Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura • 1958 • Japan
    Starring Minoru Oki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Hideko Takamine

    When a pair of a detectives lose the trail of a murder suspect, they camp out across the street from his ex-lover (Hideko Takamine) in hopes that she will lead them to their man. It’s the beginning ...

  • Rusty Knife

    Episode 6

    Directed by Toshio Masuda • 1958 • Japan

    Rusty Knife was the first smash for director Toshio Masuda, who would go on to become one of Japanese cinema's major hit makers. In the film, Yujiro Ishihara and fellow top Nikkatsu star Akira Kobayashi play former hoodlums trying to leave behind a life o...

  • Take Aim at the Police Van

    Episode 7

    Directed by Seijun Suzuki • 1960 • Japan

    At the beginning of Seijun Suzuki's taut and twisty whodunit, a prison truck is attacked and a convict inside murdered. The penitentiary guard on duty, Daijiro (Michitaro Mizushima), is accused of negligence and suspended, only to take it upon himself to ...

  • The Bad Sleep Well

    Episode 8

    Directed by Akira Kurosawa • 1960 • Japan
    Starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Tatsuya Mihashi

    A young executive hunts down his father’s killer in director Akira Kurosawa’s scathing THE BAD SLEEP WELL. Continuing his legendary collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa combines element...

  • Intimidation

    Episode 9

    Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara • 1960 • Japan

    Koreyoshi Kurahara's ingeniously plotted, pocket-size noir concerns the intertwined fates of a desperate bank manager, blackmailed for book-cooking, and his resentful but timid underling, passed over for a promotion. The marvelously moody Intimidatio...

  • Zero Focus

    Episode 10

    Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura • 1961 • Japan
    Starring Yoshiko Kuga, Hizuru Takachiho, Ineko Arima

    After her husband disappears on a business trip, newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) realizes she knows very little about the man she has been married to for only a week. With a pair of mysterious photogra...

  • Pigs and Battleships

    Episode 11

    Directed by Shohei Imamura • 1962 • Japan
    Starring Jitsuko Yoshimura, Yoko Minamida, Hiroyuki Nagato

    A dazzling, unruly portrait of postwar Japan, PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS details, with escalating absurdity, the desperate power struggles between small-time gangsters in the port town of Yokosuka. Sho...

  • Youth of the Beast

    Episode 12

    Directed by Seijun Suzuki • 1963 • Japan
    Starring Joe Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji

    When a mysterious stranger muscles into two rival yakuza gangs, Tokyo’s underworld explodes with violence. YOUTH OF THE BEAST (YAJU NO SEISHUN) was a breakthrough for director Seijun Suzuki, introducing...

  • High and Low

    Episode 13

    Directed by Akira Kurosawa • 1963 • Japan
    Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi

    Toshiro Mifune is unforgettable as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a cold-blooded kidnapper in HIGH AND LOW (TENGOKU TO JIGOKU), the highly influential domesti...

  • Cruel Gun Story

    Episode 14

    Directed by Takumi Furukawa • 1964 • Japan

    Fresh out of the slammer, Togawa (Branded to Kill's rough-and-ready Joe Shishido) has no chance to go straight because he is immediately coerced by a wealthy mob boss into organizing a heist on an armored car carrying racetrack receipts. After assemblin...

  • Pale Flower

    Episode 15

    Directed by Masahiro Shinoda • 1964 • Japan
    Starring Ryo Ikebe, Mariko Kaga

    In this cool, seductive jewel of the Japanese New Wave, a yakuza, fresh out of prison, becomes entangled with a beautiful and enigmatic gambling addict; what at first seems a redemptive relationship ends up leading him f...

  • Tokyo Drifter

    Episode 16

    Directed by Seijun Suzuki • 1966 • Japan
    Starring Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawaji

    In this jazzy gangster film, reformed killer Tetsu’s attempt to go straight is thwarted when his former cohorts call him back to Tokyo to help battle a rival gang. Director Seijun Suzuki’s onslaught ...

  • A Colt Is My Passport

    Episode 17

    Directed by Takashi Nomura • 1967 • Japan
    Starring Joe Shishido, Chitose Kobayashi

    One of Japanese cinema’s supreme emulations of American noir, Takashi Nomura’s A COLT IS MY PASSPORT is a down-and-dirty but gorgeously photographed yakuza film starring Joe Shishido as a hard-boiled hit man caugh...

  • Branded to Kill

    Episode 18

    Directed by Seijun Suzuki • 1967 • Japan

    When Japanese New Wave bad boy Seijun Suzuki delivered this brutal, hilarious, and visually inspired masterpiece to the executives at his studio, he was promptly fired. Branded to Kill tells the ecstatically bent story of a yakuza assassin with a fetish f...

  • Imogen Sara Smith on PALE FLOWER

    Episode 19

    The following interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith was recorded in 2020.

  • Imogen Sara Smith on Akira Kurosawa’s Crime Thrillers

    Episode 20

    The following interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith was recorded in 2020.

  • Imogen Sara Smith on ZERO FOCUS

    Episode 21

    The following interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith was recorded in 2020.

  • Imogen Sara Smith on A COLT IS MY PASSPORT

    Episode 22

    The following interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith was recorded in 2020.