When the Criterion released their series of 1960s “Japanese noirs” some months back I meant to watch them all right away. My knowledge of 1960s Japanese cinema is relegated more to classic Kurosawa (who made his own noir – the masterful High and Low in 1963) and then the larger New Wave names – Oshima, Imamura, Masumura, Fukasaku, etc. A lot of these, including Takashi Nomura, director of A Colt is My Passport are largely new to me.
A Colt is My Passport takes the tail-end of classic period American tough-guy noir and the burgeoning American action-adventure cinema and places it in an aesthetically formal and experimental Japanese context.
Kamimura (Jo Shishido, he of the puffy cheeks from Seijun Suzuki classics Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill) is the hitman. The colt is his passport. He’s contracted for a job. He does it. But then finds he cannot escape. Along with his younger, more naive, and sympathetic partner Shun (Jerry Fujio) he dodges mob goons and bullets trying to catch a boat out of town. While in a temporary safe house he meets Mina (Chitose Kobayashi). She’s the forlorn, tragic character. Working in a sleazy restaurant, pursued by a mobster she no longer loves, she sees love and a way out in Kamimura.
The narrative of A Colt is My Passport is swift. The opening sequence jumps us right into the set-up, and our only character introduction is Kamimura’s taciturn nature. Director Nomura seems far more interested in the formal qualities of the picture than the story. Sure, the film is dramatic, but he spends far more time utilizing his Spaghetti Western soundtrack and composing sequences with panache than he does developing character or bringing the storyline to a more complex level.
There are several great sequences, including an ending that both rips off and rewrites a classic Leone shootout from a few years earlier. One of Nomura’s better decisions in here is to make frequent use of Mina’s eyes. An example:
Shun has just been kidnapped and is being held for ransom (Kamimura is the ransom). Mobsters show up to Mina’s work and hand her a telephone through which she can hear Shun being brutally beaten. Nomura shoots this sequence almost entirely in extreme close-up. The shot begins on the top of the phone, pressed against Mina’s ear. As Shun’s yells are heard she turns slightly towards camera into a semi-profile. Keeping her head that way she looks up, frame right, but not by turning her head, just her eyes. Her expressive, large eyes tell much of the story here: that this is affecting her and that she will do anything to stop it. It’s a nice moment not only because she doesn’t have to say anything, but also because it accurately predicts her actions later on.
The ending is pretty nuts and there are some SPOILERS here:
Kamimura gives himself up to save Shun’s life. Shun and Mina are off on a boat and Kamimura, always the man of honor, goes to meet the mobsters. He spies on them first to ascertain what they’ll use – a bullet-proof car in this case. This is one of the few scenes in A Colt is My Passport that is excellent in both its narrative and aesthetics. Neither are sacrificed. Nomura keeps us in suspense by showing Shun taking his time to dig a grave. The shots are wide and hazy. The sound design is ominously muted but present. After a “you can’t shoot me even though I’m not covered by anything and mainly because I’m the protagonist” shootout, the car approaches. Kamimura holds his ground as bullets ricochet around him, some even striking him. The car gets closer and, just as it hits him, he dives into the grave in front of him and attaches a bomb to the underside of the car as it drives over top. Trigger. Explosion. Credits. When not in the aforementioned wide-shots here – which is, appropriately, how Nomura ends the film – the sequence is tightly constructed with alternating moving camera (car) and very still camera (Kamimura). It’s sort of like a smaller, more compressed version of the crosscut I was talking about last post. Of course, this time the collision is more obvious, but the rapid movement from kinetic to static camera and back and forth creates an idiosyncratic rhythm that can only be relieved in one way: the bomb.
Nomura also spends a lot of time in this film concentrating on the idea of preparation. We watch Kamimura scout locations. We watch him at target practice, making a bomb, spying on his foes. This, alongside his loyalty to Shun and his silence, are probably the best judges of his characters. Nomura seems to compare him to the machines he makes and the observatory time he takes. So, when Kamimura walks towards camera in an extreme, dust-strewn wide-shot at the end, having defeated an absurd amount of enemies, and with no real destination in sight, the fact that he somehow comes off as human and not machine-like, is all the more of an accomplishment.