Rusty Knife| Dir. Toshio Masuda | Japan (1958) | 90 mins
Screening on Saturday, February 9 | 10:00 PM Eastern
TIFF Pacific Cinematheque – Retrospective
Rusty Knife is a film of the mukokuseki akushun (translated as “borderless action”) genre, a formula that came out of Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio. The studio produced “action potboilers” that blended in elements of gangster, western, and angsty teen films, and like its gritty influences, Masuda’s film gives in almost entirely to animalistic drives for pleasure and violence, complicated only by revenge.
The film is set mostly in Udaka, a city going through post-war industrialization, and its major organizations are fighting each other for a stake in the city’s future. In a deadlock with the local gangsters, the police arrest organized crime boss Kiyoshi Katsumata whenever they can, but are forced to release him when no one in the community comes forward with evidence.
The citizens are so complacent with Katsumata that his henchmen joke that with his impending arrest, at least he’ll “be able to get some rest.” This all changes when two letters arrive in Udaka, one addressed each to the D.A., Mr. Karita, and to Katsumata, about a five-year-old murder, and both sides race to reach the witness Shimabara (played by Joe Shishido) first.
In the letters, a witness reveals that the five-year-old suicide of a city councilman was actually orchestrated by Katsumata. The writer places himself and two other witnesses at the scene, and asks for 200,000 yen from Katsumata to keep quiet. Katstumata’s gangsters throw Shimabara from a moving train, leaving only the two other witnesses implicated in the letters.
The other witnesses are the young and impetuous Terada, played by Akira Kobayashi, and Tachibana played Yujiro Ishihara, a seemingly amiable bartender suppressing a violent temper with self-deprecation. Buried twenty minutes into the film, Tachibana is the barely controllable killing instrument in the title. He’s just been released from a five-year prison sentence for murdering a man who raped his late girlfriend, and his appetite for violence frightens even Katsumata’s gangsters.
Though tortured by his temper and strength, in order to protect Terada and himself, Tachibana has to allow his old skill set to surface, at whatever cost to his status as a newly law-abiding citizen. When he’s informed that his late girlfriend was raped by a group of Katsumata’s gangsters, Tachibana lets go of his anguish and completely unfurls.
The film itself is cleverly shot to match its elegantly structured plot. In an old blog post, David Blakesee wrote that the early Nikkatsu noir films should be appreciated for their “growing mastery of coolness, from the swanky theme song and a deliriously swervy downtown motorcycle ride to a hard-charging high-speed dueling truck drag race and other elements of that jazzy neon vibe.” Rusty Knife has all of those elements, and if nothing else, should be seen and appreciated for that scene of Terada and his young girlfriend riding a motorcycle through Udaka, delirious and giddy as they dip and swerve into the city, unaware of their impending doom.