Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ace no Joe is Style!

There is something about the style of Japanese acting that still keeps it different and fresher than so many other cultures years later. The style can often be over-the-top and beyond real, but this isn't to say that the characters become caricatures. Especially in genre cinema, they often push the boundaries of what's emotion with sharp delivery, quickly changing moods and actions, imposing gestures and by having slightly self-conscious personas without ever being narcissistic or self-absorbed. Just see the performance of men like Bunta Sugawara, Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kei Sato, Tatsuya Fuji and you'll see a certain type of acting method that spills out over all sides of the frame.

In an era of post-Actor's Studio Hollywood where method acting existed for the idea of achieving higher realism and emotion from the scrip the actor was given often at the cost of their performances teetering on the border of become over-blown and pompous, the Japanese actors achieve reality with their comic book style. By being a film, it no longer belong to reality and people already assume their disbelief and extend to their imaginations what the director wants to show them. It seems to be a continuation of kyōgen or kabuki theater where style is used as a way to connect to the audience and understands that theater (and in this case cinema) is not real life.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (Tantei jimusho 2-3: Kutabare akutodomo) (1963) Dir. Seijun Suzuki


Traditionally in a crime film, there are the simple archetypes that never break out of what the role is. There's the honorable crook, the crook who swears it will be his last heist, the washed up cop, etc. Joe Shishido is one of those few actors that transcend the archetypal roles he's given. In what would feel mundane and typical in the hands of an other, Shishido can make feel completely original and fresh.

Take at Seijun Suzuki's Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun) (1963). What is essentially the most simple story (revenge), the film is turned upside its head and slapped upside its head to create a world of jazzy jukebox rhythms, quick drawn pistols and sadomasochist cat lovers. This gag from early on in the film is a perfect example of Joe Shishido brings to the table:

The waiter asks about what type of bar girl would he like to join him.
He points in one direction.
Points in an other direction
And in a matter of seconds...
...he gives his demand.
Or in the Tashlin-esque antics of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (Tantei jimusho 2-3: Kutabare akutodomo) (1963) where Shishido spontaneously breaks into dance.

He almost has the quality of silent film acting with his understanding of his physical presence. It's not just enough for an actor to be able to say his lines clearly and believably, but you need total command of a character. Certain actors use this as a means to boost their own egos or chew up the scenery, which Joe Shishido's crooks keep in check. Besides, it would be uncool and uncharacteristic of him if one of his characters in the midst of deadly serious situations just shouts bloated dialogue. He get what he needs to get across and if he can do it with a punch or a bullet, then it's all the better.

A Colt is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto) (1967) Dir. Takashi Nomura
It's also impossible to speak of Joe Shishido's performances without his co-star: his cheeks. After being deemed to classical handsome by his superiors at Nikkatsu and being tossed bit roles, in 1957, he underwent dramatic surgury too extend his cheek bones giving him the classic Joe Shishido, more rodent than man (They're even more spectacular in Nikkatsu's lower-budget black and white films where the shadows and lighting aid in showing off the cheeks.). In a medium filled with sharp-jawed men, Shishido re-invents the face to show something cinema's never been shown and it boosted his popularity tremendously. First acting aside other famous Nikkatsu stars like Akira Kobayashi, they eventually bumped him up to a variety of starring vehicles including comedies and romance until he found his niche in the world of action.

A Colt is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto) (1967) Dir. Takashi Nomura

Even in the standard plotted action or crime film, he keeps it unique and fresh with the collaboration of some of Nikkatsu's finest directors. In A Colt is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto) (1967), Shishido is at his most Melville with his perfectly trimmed suits, professional walk, unspoken honor and even while running and taking bullets, he (and his suit) still look good. Then there's the same year's Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin) (1967) where he fits perfectly into Suzuki's madcap avant-action where his character goes through so much physically and emotionally:

He stresses over doomed women.
He celebrates with joy after...
...and before battle.
His weakness over the smell of rice.

Cruel Gun Story (Kenju zankoku monogatori) (1964), a personal favorite of mine, features Shishido at his most gritty and most American. Almost all the humor is absolved from this film and instead you get a clenched-fist noir of Greek tragedy and betrayal. After he get's out of jail, he teams up with his former gang and a rag-band of crooks to pull of the greatest heist in Japanese crime history. Eventually genre wins over Shishido when he is betrayed by his boss and his partners after he did the robery so he could pay for his paraplegic sisters surgery; pure melodrama. The whole time the aura of failure looms over the picture with the washed up criminals he's teamed up with to him ignoring the fact his sisters doctor insist she'll never walk again. It's a film where no one is spared, both the betrayed and betrayer.

Cruel Gun Story (Kenju zankoku monogatori) (1964) Dir. Takumi Furakawa

Shishido's career never really made it past the pink cinema boom in the seventies. He was more interested in wielding pistols than groping women in front of a camera. Aside from a few fantastic roles including Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode (Jingi naki tatakai: Kanketsu-hen) (1974) and in Nobuhiko Obayashi's adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's famous manga Blackjack (1977), he gracefully stepped away from the limelight to enjoy the pleasures of retirement.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode (Jingi naki tatakai: Kanketsu-hen) (1974) Dir. Kinji Fukasaku

Here are a few links of interest for Joe Shishido:
- Joe Shishido's official page
- A Tribute Page to Joe Shishido with an amazing photo gallery
- A fantastic and personal Joe Shishido experience from the time Criterion's Eclipse set, Nikkatsu Noir, was released
- Here you can buy Mark Schilling's fantastic book on Nikkatsu with a very funny (and slightly arrogant) interview with Shishido

A Colt is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto) (1967) Dir. Takashi Nomura

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