On the Line with Teruo Ishii

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoDanger lurks all around in Teruo Ishii’s Line series, a collection of sensational films noir made during the director’s beloved time at Shintoho studios from 1947 until its bankruptcy in 1961.  In these stylistically varied but consistently provocative crime films, Ishii offers a glimpse at the lurid underworld of drug-dealers, human-traffickers, prostitutes, and assassins through the eyes of dogged journalists, devoted boyfriends, and wrongfully accused men.  With jazzy scores and neon-lit streets, these seedy and saucy films convey Shintoho’s daring and eccentric filmmaking ethic and Ishii’s origins as Japan’s “King of Cults.”

Secret White Line (Shirosen himitsu chitai)

Ishii impressed audiences and studio execs with this remarkable, energetic investigation of an underground prostitution ring, inspiring a film noir series for Shintoho and establishing a thematic foundation for future films.

Black Line (Kurosen chitai)

A tenacious crime reporter, framed for the murder of a young woman, attempts to expose a prostitution and drug syndicate in this bleakly hardboiled tale set amongst the neon-lit streets and unsavory dives of Shinjuku.

Yellow Line (Ôsen chitai)

A betrayed hitman, his exotic dancer hostage, and her reporter boyfriend converge on Kobe’s sleazy, claustrophobic Casbah and on an unscrupulous prostitution syndicate called the Yellow Line.

Sexy Line (Sekushî chitai)

Ishii take his camera to the streets of Asakusa and Ginza and its milling crowds in this witty investigation of pickpockets, prostitutes, post-war prosperity, and moral license.

Fire Line (Kasen chitai)

In Ishii’s co-scripted final film of the series, a sharpshooter, a shady arms dealer, and a mobster’s moll plot to steal back a cache of guns from a duplicitous and double-dealing gang.

With notes on the films by Japanese-cinema historian Chris D.

Teruo Ishii has become best known outside of Japan as its master of Ero guro or “erotic-grotesque,” that particular brand of Japanese eroticism that blends decadence, corruption, and abnormality.  Titles like Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1968), Horrors of the Malformed Men (1969), and Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) first come to mind when Ishii’s name is cited, but the filmography of Japan’s “King of Cults” reads more like a survey of Japanese genre cinema, containing a diversity of style and subject matter not yet fully appreciated in the West.  Most recently, Mark Schilling’s Shintoho Mind Warp film series, curated by him for the 2010 Udine Far East Film Festival, toured to various festivals and cinematheques introducing fans of Japanese cinema to the wild world of Shintoho studios and to Ishii’s Yellow Line (1960), the third film in his expertly crafted, film noir-emulating Line series.  Other titles, like Black Line (1960) and Sexy Line (1961), have made appearances as rep picks screening at previous Udine Festivals, but they have not found release on hard media outside of Japan.  Ishii’s early work at Shintoho is important as it describes his diversity of talent, his developing cinematic voice, and provides material to consider in contrast to the arterial sprays, rope bondage, and hideous men contained in his later work and that epitomize conventional understandings of Ishii.  Criterion’s Eclipse sets are an ideal format to collect these films in an affordable and accessible manner and unleash another brand of Japanese noir on the Collection’s voracious audience.

Teruo IshiiIshii’s love of cinema started at an early age, attending cinemas with his parents for a steady diet of foreign film, particularly French movies.  His career abortively began at Toho studios where he began work in 1942 as an assistant director, his tenure cut short when he was called into service during WWII to take aerial photographs for bombing runs.  Ishii joined the newly established Shintoho in 1947 where he worked for Hiroshi Shimizu, served as an assistant director to Mikio Naruse, and studied script writing with Shinichi Sekizawa.  He started his directorial career on the Super Giant movie serial and made his biggest marks with the Line series (also known as the Chitai series), a collection of gutsy, stylish, noir-inspired crime films, and the Queen Bee series, a trailblazing collection of female action crime films that would anticipate a popular form of yakuza picture in the decades that followed.  With the bankruptcy of Shintoho in 1961, Ishii would relocate to Toei, breaking through with the Abashiri Prison series (directing the first 10 films of that franchise) and then staking his claim with a number of audaciously violent and disturbing films, including adaptations of the infamous Edogawa Rampo and other tales of psycho-sexual horror.  Ishii’s own brand of Grand Guignol-style of body horror can be seen hinted at in the Line series, found in the phantasmagorical flesh of exotic dancers, in the strange, made-up foreignness of lip-synching African-American jazz singers and the blackface make-up of Japanese and Caucasian actors, in the conspicuous gender transgressions of cross-dressers, and in the physical affects and gestures of his characters who sneer and snap compulsively.  In the Line series, it is unquestionably the body that is at risk – to be abused, exploited, and submitted at the whims of others, to sweat, bleed, and leak beyond control.  Ishii brings us close up to these physical forms to reveal fear and tension etched on the skin.  These films strongly resemble American film noir, but transgress farther and make themselves remarkable in the process.  The Line series reveals a filmmaker already assured in his cinematic voice and ready to bravely shock audiences with unconventional content.

The Line series has been released in Japan on DVD, however the first film, Secret White Line (1958), is only available as part of the Line series box set.  We must admit that we haven’t seen this film and have found virtually nothing written on it.  We’ll trust it offers the same excitement as the remainder of the series and simply move on from here to the films that followed.  It’s been some time since Criterion has released an Eclipse set, somewhat surprising given the array of Japanese titles available on its Hulu page.  (We’re still waiting for a late Gosha set.)  We’d love to see more of Shintoho’s delirious, genre-fuelled classics and Ishii’s Line series would provide a beautifully contained, thematically consistent film franchise to release altogether.  To compliment the seedy spectacle of Ishii’s films (particularly the saturated sickness of Ishii’s only colour film in the series, Yellow Line), we’d suggest bright, garish packaging that puts neon purple alongside neon green.

Credits:  We once again look to Chris D. to be Criterion’s answer for high-quality insight on Japanese genre-cinema.  His book, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, offers career overviews, filmographies, and interviews with an array of filmmakers and performers, including Teruo Ishii.  We should also thank Mark Schilling for his work to advance the profile of Shintoho outside of Japan and the reviews and commentary that his screenings inspire.  Lastly, we’ll give a shout-out to the JapaneseSamuraiDVD.com store, our preferred source for hard-to-find Japanese films.


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