Jo Shishido Retrospective

Since it’s first anniversary of the death of one of my favorite Japanese actors, I thought a short retrospective would be in order. Admittedly, I found out about the anniversary from the new Japanese Noir collection on the Criterion Channel. There are four films included starring Jo Shishido, so those are what I’m choosing to write about this time. I first found out about Shishido from the films Seijun Suzuki made for Nikkatsu studios, Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill. Specifically, Branded to Kill is one of my favorite films of all time.

Youth of the Beast:

This film is a well made, but a somewhat standard Japanese gangster film. It does however show some evidence of the visual flourishes that would become Seijun Suzuki’s signature for the rest if his career. There is a clear inclination toward the surreal and vivid color schemes, which elevate the visual style of the film past most other factory produced gangster films of the time.

As far as the plot goes, in order to infiltrate the criminal organization responsible for the death of his partner, a detective adopts the persona of a yakuza and pits two organizations against each other. It’s a classic story that has been copied many times from Yojimbo, also seen in A Fistful of Dollars. I can’t blame Suzuki for doing so given the restrictions of the studio system where he was tasked with producing several films a year under contract. In fact, the film brings a new style to a familiar story, which is enough for high marks from me. I don’t mean to give too much credit to Suzuki for success of the film when it’s Shishido who plays the suave gangster who is able to pit two mob bosses against each other like a much better dressed Clint Eastwood.

Branded to Kill:

This is the film that supposedly got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu, but I’m so glad it was made. In my opinion, its one of the most stylish and visually interesting gangster movies ever made in any language.

But enough about Suzuki since this is supposed to be a post about Jo Shishido. Neither film would have been the same without his presence as the protagonist. For me, he is the embodiment of cool in Japanese cinema. This film uses black and white cinematography in a way I’ve never seen in any other film, but Shishido’s tortured performance is what really sells this one to me. I’ve seen other Suzuki films where his style overshadows the main actor, but this is far from that. I can’t think of any other actor I’ve seen in Japanese cinema that could stand up to the weirdness shown in this film, and it’s all the better because of that. The abstract visual style and idea that the main assassin has a fetish for boiled rice could have been purely comical in the hands of a lesser actor. It seems that Suzuki knew his main actor could play a cool performance in an atypical narrative, so he just went balls to the wall with this one.

I’ll spend the rest of my life arguing that this is one of the greatest films ever made. It has all the style of Breathless with more sex and violence. It may not have broken the same barriers, but for a studio picture with a mainstream star, this type of film would be unthinkable at least in modern Hollywood.

Cruel Gun Story:

Another extremely solid noir film, this time featuring a heist. Shishido plays a man recruited right out of jail to lead a team of thieves planning on ripping off a racetrack. The entire plan is shown to the audience, appearing to be foolproof, but as we know in this type of film nothing ever goes according to plan. It turns into a kidnap of the two drivers of an armored car, where Shishido’s character is able to show the extent of his ruthlessness. Although its more of a standard Japanese noir film than the previous two I mentioned, a great lead performance and a runtime of less than 90 minutes mean it should satisfy most fans of the genre.

A Colt is my Passport:

This film has a lot going for it. The title is the best in a sea of incredible Japanese noir film titles and it is very clearly influenced by spaghetti westerns. In a simple plot, Shishido plays a hit man who is tasked with killing a rival gang boss. Yet again, things don’t go quite as planned. Eventually the film ends in a shootout which which is one of the most creative I’ve ever seen on film. The shootout alone makes the film worth watching, but Shishido’s performance is predictably outstanding. He epitomizes cool like no other actor I’ve ever seen. Every little stare or puff on his cigarette shows that his character has the confidence to go head to head against the toughest gangsters. His character in Branded to Kill is a bit more interesting, but he does everything he possibly can with the script for this film.

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