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Black River

Posted by martinteller on October 17, 2014

Nishida (Fumio Watanabe) is an engineering student, looking for a room in Tokyo.  He finds one in a run-down tenement managed by an unpleasant landlady (Isuzu Yamada).  The other occupants are the poor and infirm, drunkards and prostitutes and thieves.  Nishida settles in, and develops a fancy for Shizuko (Ineko Arima), a girl he often sees passing by.  But someone else has his eye on Shizuko: a sadistic thug named Joe (Tatsuya Nakadai), also known as “Joe the killer”.  Joe concocts a cruel plan to make Shizuko his girl, and that’s not all he has up his sleeve.  The landlady, having made a deal to sell her property to be used as a sex hotel, hires Joe to evict all of her tenants.

This is a dark and seedy film.  In fact, I wish I’d held off on it until Noir-vember, but I didn’t realize it would be so noir.  Corruption and degradation overruns everything, and the winner is always the one who’s willing to take the most drastic action.  It’s a world of ramshackle hovels, neon-tinged nightclubs and thieves’ dens.  Nothing pure survives, everyone is brought down to the lowest level.  Joe and his band of hoods play rough, and they take what they want.  Nishida’s fellow occupants cheat and lie to get out of paying their share of utilities… and also to get out of saving a man’s life.

The photography is high-contrast, especially in the night scenes where American G.I. transports rumble through the streets like deadly predators.  The jazzy score by Chûji Kinoshita (Keisuke’s brother) is wonderfully appropriate, particularly the loping, bump n’ grind theme that winds its way around snatches of hard-edged, cynical dialogue.  Nakadai is at his slimiest, a real dangerous character you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.  Arima does an especially good job with a tricky performance, a character who drastically transforms over the course of the film.  Watanabe is fine, without overdoing the righteous indignation, but he’s the least interesting among such a well-cast bunch of desperate souls and low-lifes.  Yamada’s deformed teeth may be a touch over-the-top, but her performance is memorable.

It all adds up to a tasty noir morsel that looks at both economic and moral decay.  If the other films in the “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System” set are anywhere near this good, it’ll be going on my shelf.  I have yet to see a Kobayashi movie I didn’t like, and it’s kind of crazy that I don’t have any of them in my collection.  I’ll have to rectify that when the next Criterion sale comes around, and pick up Harakiri at the very least.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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