Thursday, July 19, 2012

House of Bamboo

HOUSE OF BAMBOO           B                     
USA  (102 mi)  1955  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Fuller

The first postwar American film to be shot completely in Japan, while Bogart’s TOKYO JOE (1949) was the first to film there, creating newsreel shots while most of Bogart’s film was actually completed in the studio.  Opening with a daring train heist taking place under a Mount Fuji backdrop, where a man is killed and another seriously shot, Fuller makes terrific use of colorful Tokyo locations.  Playing out like a B-movie, there’s a major contrast between the colorful Japanese costumes of bright kimonos seen on the streets and the mandatory trench coats and fedora hats of film noir, where much of the dialogue has that gruff American gangster style, which in this overly polite and ultra conformist Asian world is strange, to say the least.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting take on Japan attempting to establish a new postwar identity and America trying to find its rightful place in the postwar reconstruction.  It plays out like a travelogue, but also, due to the obvious culture shock, is filled with a continued series of unfortunate misconceptions that are overly stereotypical to the point of being crude and offensive, much like how American GI’s impose their own shallow, Ugly American manners and customs on any foreign nation where they happen to be sent, which usually includes their predominate need for a heavy dose of alcohol and prostitutes.  Interestingly, what happens here is Americans bring their criminal mentality of gangsters and hoods into what is otherwise a pacified nation with little to no crime, where few individuals outside the police even have access to guns.  Adapted from a Harry Kleiner play that was originally featured in the William Keighley movie THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948), a rousingly patriotic FBI tribute that’s also a suspenseful noir, where the near documentary, on-location scenes in Washington, D.C. and the FBI training facilities in Quantico, Virginia have been transported to gritty locations in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan in 1954, shot in ‘Scope where Fuller uses the same cinematographer, Joe MacDonald.  This successful blend of a Hollywood melodrama set within the actual settings of an exotic Asian locale was used again in Richard Quine’s THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), where an American artist reluctantly finds love with a local prostitute among exquisite Hong Kong locations.  In each, the semi-documentary setting is so visually pronounced that whatever story there is hardly matters, becoming time capsules of a specific place in time.  Akira Kurosawa was much more successful capturing an authentic postwar look of Japan, especially his ability to capture unforgettable street scenes in DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948), STRAY DOG (1949), and IKIRU (1952).

When an American GI dies from the train robbery before naming his crime boss, U.S. Army intelligence working in cooperation with Japanese police authorities determine he was secretly married to a Japanese woman, a secret he covered up, believing if others knew it could cost her life.  Enter the wooden-faced Robert Stack as Eddie Spanier, a man with few words, a trench coated American hood with a tendency to barge into situations and demand someone in charge who speaks English, chastising anyone who can’t speak the language, rousting some of the local gambling dens, asking for protection money, bringing the whole attitude of film noir into what are otherwise dazzling, color saturated street scenes.  Searching for the girl, he walks through a kabuki theater dress rehearsal, basically pushing them out of his way, also an elaborate labyrinth of boats and wooden walkways at the pier, basically an excuse to film at such a beautifully authentic seaside locale.  After a brief search, he finds the girl, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), pretending he was her husband’s army buddy, acting surprised to learn he’s dead.  His nosing around brings him straight to the crime boss, Robert Ryan as Sandy Dawson, who is curious who’s still walking around Tokyo using such outmoded collection methods.  Dawson and his den of thieves live in an elaborately decorated abandoned temple, with manicured gardens and a view of Mount Fuji, where Spanier’s no nonsense approach appeals to Dawson, as he’s a guy that won’t ask any questions, he’ll simply carry out his assignment, like he’s been doing all his life.  The twist here is that Spanier is really an Army intelligence officer infiltrating the crime syndicate, hoping his information can trace the gun that shot the American at the train heist.  All goes according to plan, except Dawson wants to know the Mariko angle and why he’s mixed up with her, eventually settling on the made up explanation that she’s Spanier’s “kimono girl,” a bought and paid for prostitute.  What’s interesting is Fuller’s spin on her profession, where neighbors aren’t ashamed that she’s a prostitute, but that she’s serving an American, a foreigner, something considered beneath their dignity, as that brings dishonor and disgrace to the neighborhood.        

While the American and Japanese love interest is conveyed in an artificalized, over-the-top melodrama with a syrupy musical soundtrack, this stands in stark contrast to their undercover roles, both assuming false identities, as through their eyes is an unsentimentalized glimpse into a gritty, surprisingly violent criminal underworld that Dawson, a former GI himself, runs like a military operation, where what they’re discovering is the corrupt influence of the American occupation of Japan.  Fuller tries to get inside the head of the gang culture itself, which has a ranking system of favoritism, where Eddie quickly rises to the top of Dawson’s trust, which doesn’t sit well with some of the others, especially the way Dawson lavishes praise and attention with a chummy homoerotic intimacy, undercutting the group’s morale.  But when he’s informed by a reporter that Eddie is an inside plant from military intelligence, Dawson vows to get his revenge, angry that he’s misjudged him, taking his betrayal personally, mapping out a job where he’s sure to get killed.  As events spiral out of control, what seems clear is other than death, there’s no measure of justice among thieves, where this sinister portrait of underworld amorality undermines the Japanese reconstruction effort, where America is supposed to be helping reconstruct a postwar moral order.  Using lush colors and fluid camera movements, the surface look of Japan couldn’t be brighter, but like Cagney in WHITE HEAT (1949), Dawson gets trapped evading the police, ironically stuck in a children’s amusement park filled with mothers and tiny children, where’s he’s seen wandering around with a gun in his hand with families screaming in panic.  As police try to clear everyone away, there is utter pandemonium, like a GODZILLA (1954) disaster movie, where Fuller stages a momentous scene with Dawson herded up to an elevated revolving globe, like a Disneyland attraction.  From this height, Dawson unleashes ferocious firepower, seemingly never running out of bullets, continually spraying the grounds, keeping police at bay.  Eddie arrives and tries to track him down, initially with no success, but while there’s plenty of bullets in the air, this is a dramatically staged shoot out in such a memorable location.  A mix of color and pulp style, where Fuller attempts to interject Japanese street scenes and culture throughout, the film survives as a highly entertaining piece of Americana set in a fragile period of Japanese history. 

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