Arrow Video: Black Boom - Two by Yasuzo Masumura (1962-1963)

While the American film industry was facing upheaval with the looming threat of television which in turn devised the attraction of widescreen or double-features, on the other side of the globe the postwar Japanese film industry underwent a similar transformation.  In addition to breaking away from the jidaigeki period piece to pursuing more contemporary themes of the effects of modernization and corporatist powers, the industry saw the rise of the yakuza film and the business girl film, shifting the focus towards more immediate matters facing Japan.  Studios began hiring more iconoclastic countercultural directors with their own idiosyncrasies defining their style and thematic leanings.  Among them was maverick satirist Yasuzo Masumura whose infiltration of the genre picture provided two indelible offerings of the so-called “black boom”.

The ”black boom” film series, consisting of eleven films by a variety of Japanese directors from 1962 until 1964, consisted of features focused on espionage, corporate chicanery, unexplained deaths and themes of social change facing postwar Japan.  The towering regime of corporate-state power and the unscrupulous machinations governing systems of justice present a Japanese landscape where ordinary people are forced to sell their souls to stay afloat or cut corners to reach an unattainable deadline.  Competition is fierce, even deadly, in the ascent to the throne whether it be in the corporate conference room or the judicial systematized courtroom. 

Curated by Arrow Video are two features specifically directed by Yasuzo Masumura which were among the first films of the “black boom” to tackle the unfair and unjust mercenary nature of the system, the auto-industry espionage thriller Black Test Car and the courtroom murder trial drama The Black Report.  Notable for their distinctive visual style, their penchant for nihilism and their kindred exploration of the unspoken similarities between bureaucracy and criminality, these two films are as ruthless as they are unforgettable once seen, offering a satirical take on the procedural thriller as well as illustrating how easy it is to game the system for your own self-serving advantage.  With this, let us take a look at Yasuzo Masumura’s Black film series.

Black Test Car (1962)

After a literal Black Test Car crashes and burns, the stage is set for a war of ruthless competition between two Japanese car companies.  Told as a loose ensemble dramatic espionage thriller set within the office and assembly line confines of the auto industry, the film posits the fledgling Tiger Motorcar Company against the formidable and established Yamato Company who devise their own mutual task forces to try and beat each other to the finish line.  When vital designs for the new Pioneer car wind up in the hands of the Yamato Company, undercover spies from both sides are deployed to try and root out the mole within the staff ranks.  As the stakes continue to rise, Onada (Hideo Takamatsu) and his methods will sink to new lows including but not limited to prostitution, blackmail and murder.

Beginning as a chilly ensemble procedural diving knee deep into the dialogue and machinations of the auto industry before ballooning into a morality play of sacrificing dignity for success, Masumura’s scathing dark satire comes on the heels of Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well for its bleak regard for the wealthy and the unscrupulousness of corporate chicanery.  But unlike Kurosawa’s more melodramatic dramatization of Hamlet, Black Test Car is told through the language and practice of designing motor vehicles in an understated, realistic fashion.  Moreover, the setting and subject of the auto industry is one that’s rarely ever seen in film let alone early 1960s Japanese cinema.  That Masumura was able to take a frankly alien industry and make the plight of the mercurial executives onscreen relatable is a remarkable feat in and of itself.

Based on the novel by Toshiyuki Kajiyama and adapted for the screen by Kazuo Funabashi and Yoshiro Ishimatsu, Black Test Car is a compelling, multifaceted film which manages to take the banal procedural of car production and transform it into a thriller which quickly goes from bad to worse.  Lensed in tight, claustrophobic widescreen by Yoshihisa Nakagawa, the visual look of Black Test Car feels deliberately suffocating like you the viewer are being boxed in with the characters.  Think of the cinematographic look of Kinji Fukusaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity without the shaky camerawork and you have a rough idea of how Masumura’s film stages the characters and set pieces onscreen.  Also key to the sense of encroaching unease is the soundtrack by Sei Ikeno, whose dark and foreboding score echoing the sentiments of Akira Ifukube will invariably send chills down your spine (especially during the opening credits). 

Performances across the board are strong but this isn’t the kind of film where one single character actor takes center stage.  This is an ensemble piece of interlocking character threads all linked to the main battle between the warring car companies and everyone who comes near this clean and sleek new Pioneer car can’t help but get their hands dirty.  By the end of the film, the car itself, borne out of sneaky, even dangerous cunning, becomes something of a demonic object.  One of the main characters in the film who went as far as to debase herself for the good of her boyfriend’s employer remarks on the new Pioneer car’s visual beauty seeing it drive by on the road.  Despite the ornate cleanliness of the vehicle the man replies ‘that car’s dirty’.  At the end of this treacherous, sullying journey through an industry we take for granted, we too understand the messiness of the business.

The Black Report (1963)

A year after sending shockwaves through Japanese filmgoers with Black Test Car, Masumura reunited with screenwriter Yoshihiro Ishimatsu and shifted gears towards a different kind of arena tainted by darkness: the courtroom.  Opening on a murder scene of a company president, The Black Report begins as an involving detective story featuring Ken Utsui as a young public prosecutor who collects more than enough evidence to solve an open and shut murder case.  However, once the case is brought into court, the prosecutor is no match for the defense attorney of the accused.  Despite ample evidence and testimonies, it quickly becomes clear an obviously guilty man will likely go free with more than a few parties within the system working against the prosecutor.

Based on the novel by Sen Saga, Masumura’s police/court procedural treads in the footsteps of Black Test Car with regard to dramatizing a sense of encroaching defeat.  The story is structured in such a way that Utsui’s prosecutor becomes David in a battle against a Goliath courtroom and the more setbacks he suffers the more we can’t help but rally behind him in support.  Many of the same cast members including Junko Kano and Hideo Takamatsu return though this ensemble procedural is mostly headed by Ken Utsui who brings a heroic edge to the character.  As more and more characters start changing their stories and displaying self-serving tendencies, the case and courtroom becomes an increasingly insurmountable adversary that continues to tower over our hapless prosecutor.

As with Black Test Car, cinematographer Nakagawa returns with even more suffocating claustrophobic camerawork sandwiching the characters and scenery together.  The courtroom has been an open stage in film since the inception of the medium but never has it felt so chokingly compressed together thanks to Nakagawa’s framing and camera placement.  Black Test Car sported a more interesting subject and setting for sure but I can’t say I’ve seen a courtroom drama that made me want to desperately run for the open outdoors, a testament to Nakagawa and Masumura’s unique visual approach.  Sei Ikeno also returns with a bleak, foreboding score of impending failure, suggesting the film’s hero and we the audience are in over our heads and things aren’t going to end well. 

While the secondary of the two Masumura features, The Black Report is no less incendiary or scathing and fills you with anti-establishment sentiment.  Though there have been courtroom dramas before, few are as critical of the construct itself as this one, implying the verdict has been reached before the case even plays out with the stakes continuing to stack against the hero.  Moreover, both Masumura features portray a modern and realistic world depicting a system that steals the souls of the living.  Even after that system strips us of our dignity and pride, Masumura’s films are ultimately about learning to live with ourselves while staring in the face of such evil.

--Andrew Kotwicki