Cinema Yakuza Ep. 2 – A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

A Colt Is My Passport—perhaps the coolest
name for a movie I’ve ever heard. But does the movie live up to the name? The short answer:
HELL. YES. A Colt Is My Passport was directed by Takashi
Nomura and stars that 60s gangster movie badass Joe “the Ace” Shishido. It almost slipped
into relative obscurity until the Criterion Collection released it on DVD in 2009 for
their Eclipse series 17: Nikkatsu Noir. It is also available to stream on Hulu Plus. A Colt Is My Passport was released in Japan
in 1967, which you may remember is the same year Shishido starred in Seijun Suzuki’s
Branded to Kill. Shishido was a busy man—he appeared in 170 films while under contract
at Nikkatsu and yet, he counts A Colt Is My Passport as his personal favorite. It is possible that he holds a special place for A Colt Is My Passport because it was kind of his big break. In an interview with Mark Schilling, Shishido
said: “Before that one I was just playing the
bad guy to Keiichiro Akagi and Akira Kobayashi. –That film was a good break for me—I had
a starring role fall into my hands. When I –was making Dirty Work I felt that my life
as a star had begun. Then I got A Colt Is –My Passport and … Slaughter Gun…– those
were my big leading roles. If they’d let –me have leading roles from the beginning,
my career as a star would have been longer. –But I’ve been in 300 movies –170 for Nikkatsu.
I don’t think anyone can beat me there” (Schilling 96). Shishido was even considered for a major role
in the Hollywood film The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, but his English wasn’t good enough
(Schilling 95). A Colt Is My Passport director, Takashi Nomura
died last month of pneumonia at 89 years old. Aside from directing, he was also an actor
and actually had a role in Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, but his part isn’t credited. He
played a fairly large role in Shion Sono’s 2001 horror film titled Suicide Club and it
was his first acting role after a 27 year hiatus. A Colt Is My Passport was released several
months before Branded to Kill and there are a few notable similarities. For example: the
assassination scene. Joe Shishido plays Yakuza hitman Shûji Kamimura
tasked with assassinating a rival boss and in this scene near the beginning of the film,
he pays the owner of an apartment building to view a unit on the fourth floor that overlooks
a tea house where the his boss and the rival boss are scheduled to have a meeting. To watch the full assassination scene, click
this button to open a new window. One can’t help but notice how the scene
parallels the sniper scene in Branded to Kill where, instead of a chirping bird distracting
Shishido, it is a butterfly. The chirping bird adds a wonderful texture to the otherwise
silent scene, which I believe is much more effective than if they used music. It gives
us calm and suspense all at the same time. Even though this is a rather simple sequence,
we get a wide variety of shots and cinematography techniques including: tilts, close-ups, frame-within-a-frame, extreme long shots, extreme close-ups, point-of-view, zooms, and foreground elements. Shishido getting ready for the assassination
is fascinating to watch because it is made up of unique concepts that pertain to an interesting
line of work. Assembling a sniper rifle from pieces in a suitcase, checking the wind speed
with a cigarette, and sitting on the suitcase are things that the average person has no
knowledge of, but they are clever solutions to issues someone might face as a hitman for
the Yakuza. Everything about Shishido and this assassination
is clean and its precision is mirrored in the precision of the cinematography, but also
in the pristine apartment. If he had broken into a dirty cluttered apartment instead,
we might expect that something would go wrong, but like this apartment, the kill is efficient
and organized. Shishido’s outfit remains neat, he removes the shells from the scene
and packs everything perfectly back into his suitcase, but he notes in the car ride that,
as clean as he was, his bullets are still in the target’s body. There are several features of A Colt Is My
Passport that Suzuki applied to Branded to Kill, but none more obvious than this scene.
While A Colt Is My Passport inspired a fair amount of Branded to Kill’s style—“including Joe Shishido’s
deadpan hitman hero,” (Schilling 140) —Takashi Nomura’s main inspiration for A Colt Is
My Passport was, in the cinema outside of Japan. These films were considered mukokuseki—or
“borderless” action films. Mukokuseki means “statelessness” and also refers
to racial ambiguity of some anime characters, but in this case it refers to Japanese films
that use elements, style, and content found in films from cultures outside of Japan. They
drew a great deal of inspiration from western culture— mainly French and Hollywood films
and what was created was a brilliant hybrid of Eastern and Western style. Some mukokueski
films even went as far as featuring cowboys in contemporary Japan. With A Colt Is My Passport, you can immediately
see similarities to the spaghetti western, and we hear them as well—the theme of the
film is very Ennio Morricone(esque). But perhaps even more substantial are the similarities
to the films of the French New Wave. It is obviously shot very economically with
most likely a very low budget; there is a fair amount of real locations, and similar characters, as well as subversive shot choices. Even though a few Nikkatsu directors like
Suzuki and Nomura brought a unique voice to the table, Nikkatsu was still a business and
their business was to make entertaining, and therefore, profitable movies. Nikkatsu modeled
itself after Hollywood and we can see a nod to classic Hollywood in the scene where Shûji’s
sidekick, Shun—played by Jerry Fujio performs a song on an acoustic guitar. These films
are a feast for the eyes and the ears. This sequence harkens back to the western studio
pictures featuring talented performers like Elvis and the Marx Brothers who would break
in the middle of a story to share their musical abilities. This happened quite often in earlier
Hollywood films, presumably because media wasn’t so readily available and either the
studio wanted the films to be packed with as much entertainment as possible or they
wanted to showcase a talent that could be lucrative in other avenues. It is likely that
Nikkatsu noticed the success of this concept and adopted the practice themselves. Elvis’
movies promoted his music and there could even be extra money brought in by releasing
the soundtrack. This concept still pops up on occasion in contemporary films—look at
this scene from the Punisher. Nearly all actors were under contract to one
studio and would only appear in that studio’s movies. Jerry Fujio was a bit of a rarity.
He was a “freelancer” and actually played a small role in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo,
which was produced at Toho (Stephens). Leading up to the final showdown, the rival
gang kidnaps Shun and makes a deal with Shûji that they will let Shun go if he gives himself
up. What is interesting is how they do the exchange. Shûji agrees to the deal and the
rival gang just releases Shun. Shûji then calls the rival gang and tells them where
to meet him for the final showdown. This seems strange because, at this point, Shûji, Shun,
and the tag-along, Mina are safe and they have a boat. They could just leave the situation
and everything would be fine, but Shûji upholds his side of the deal and meets with the rival
gang completely outnumbered. This reminded me a lot of the end of Reservoir Dogs. Click this button to skip the spoiler if you have not seen Reservoir Dogs. At the end of Reservoir Dogs Joe and Eddie
are dead, Pink leaves, the cops are moments away from rescuing Orange, but Orange tells
White the truth that he is an undercover cop. Quentin Tarantino: “Matter of fact, in Japan
they have a word. Like, to describe it. Not only is there not an English language equivalent
of the word, there’s no adjective in the English language that can really do the word
justice as far as describing it. The word is called ‘jingi’ j-i-n-g-i, jingi. The
closest thing to jingi as far as like trying to describe it in America is honor and humanity,
but that’s a weak description of jingi. Jingi is beyond honor. Jingi isn’t beyond
humanity, but it is beyond honor with a little bit of humanity in there. The best way to
describe jingi, and it’s most often used in like, Yakuza movies, it’s the thing you
must do even if you don’t want to.” Before the final showdown, the Yakuza bosses
retrofit their car to be completely bulletproof, so they can watch the showdown safely. Shûji
sees this and builds a bomb in a captivating scene that features no music or dialogue.
It’s communicated entirely visually that the bomb is magnetic and has a five-second
timer on it. To watch the final showdown in its entirety,
click this button. We get a call back as Shûji is distracted
yet again, but this time by a fly. Whereas the butterfly motif is revisited in Branded
to Kill as the object of Misako’s obsession, in A Colt Is My Passport, it is revisited
as fly—free to flutter away from the dire situation that Shuji finds himself in. What makes this setpiece work so well is that
first, it pushes the tension to the breaking point—we’ve been waiting almost the whole
movie for this moment. Second, Nomura incorporates every stylized
cinematography technique you can think of including pans, zooms, sideways tracking shots,
and deep staging. And third, tension is maintained by integrating
the bomb plot point into the first battle. The action rests and builds the tension yet
again for the final climactic moment. And we get my favorite shot in the whole film.
I mean, talk about a hero shot. The tension is somewhat alleviated as we go into the more playful
music leading up to the final confrontation as the men in the car play right into Shûji’s
plan. The aim for these movies is to be both exciting and fun. There is a time to subvert
expectations and there is a time to give the audience what they are begging for and right
now, we’re begging to see these guys get blown to smithereens. The music choice plays
into that nicely. We know what will happen. The editing in the climactic moment is made
up of quick cuts of various that build the tension to its absolute peak and then the
pace slows down slightly for the climactic moment. What’s really interesting is that
the style of editing in this climactic moment is very similar to the editing in the final
moment of Bonnie and Clyde, which happened to come out 7 months after A Colt Is My Passport,
so it is possible that inspiration was taken from this scene. Bonnie and Clyde’s editor,
Dede Allen had mentioned that it was her assistant who did the rough cut for that scene and she
fixed it up, but we can see a similar action editing style in another of her films, Dog Day Afternoon. Nomura joined Nikkatsu in 1955 and by 1969,
Nomura left mukokuseki and started making what’s known as jitsuroku or “true stories.”
By 1976 he faded into obscurity in the West. Thanks for watching! I’d like to thank my
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