Freelance reporter “Scoop” Machida is hot on the trail of a prostitution ring called the Black Line, when he is framed for the murder of a young woman. Forced to clear his own name, the handsome journalist sinks deeper into the Black Line’s rotten swamp of drugs, prostitution, and murder and finds unexpected help in Maya, a steamy female gambler familiar with the neon-lit streets, shadowy alleyways, and seedy nightclubs he must navigate. The closest film in the Line series to classic American film noir, Ishii’s Black Line is a pulpy assortment of crime film conventions including the starkly expressionistic black and white cinematography by Jûgyô Yoshida, a jazzy music score by Michiaki Watanabe, and a sleazy screenplay by Ishii and Ichirô Miyagawa.
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Ishii drops us into Black Line in medias res. While upward-rolling credits scroll diagonally across the screen foreshadowing the film’s concluding scenes, a young woman runs scared through the brightly lit, nighttime streets of Shinjuku. Investigative reporter “Scoop” Machida (played by Line series regular Shigeru Amachi) loses the girl, but is put back on her trail by a fortune-teller who directs him to a pimp with information on Scoop’s subject. Machida gets drugged by the pimp and wakes up next to the dead body of the young prostitute, his necktie used strangle her. Aware that items with his fingerprints have been taken from the scene and that he’s been framed, “Scoop” has no choice but to go on the run and solve the murder, bring down the mysterious Black Line crime syndicate, and clear his own name. And with that, Ishii establishes the parameters of the sordid world of Black Line – the cheap and prurient value of female flesh, the deadly stakes of the Black Line’s callous operation, Machida’s willingness to sully himself to achieve his ends, and the film’s bold chiaroscuro lighting, its hip jazz score, and its evocative and highly tactile location shooting.
“Scoop” obtains the name of the pimp, Sabu (played by another Line series regular, Yôji Naruto), but has difficulty tracking him down. He trips upon a lady gambler named Maya (played by Yôko Mihara, who appears in all 5 of the Line films) and discovers the Black Line’s drug-trafficking organization through an innocent young woman, Misako (Utako Mitsuya), unwittingly making deliveries. His investigation takes him to seedy nightclubs called The Navy and the Blue Moon, through mannequin factories and drag bars, across misty piers and under the neon-glow of city streets, chasing hoods and fleeing from the cops. Machida finds unlikely assistance in Maya, who works partly for the Black Line transporting its dope. She helps “Scoop” escape from the police and puts him on a final path to Sabu, the Black Line’s boss (Jun Ôtomo), and the deadly Killer Joe. With a 48 hours deadline to clear his name, Machida sets out to confront the Black Line and save Misako from its clutches.
Black Line is a cool and stylish film to watch, full of outsider appeal and attractive danger. Ishii and his cinematographer Jûgyô Yoshida craft a superb pastiche of American film noir. Black Line is full of stark shadows and canted-shots. Combined with the film’s tendency toward low-angles and lighting from below, Black Line embroiders a kind of infernal dynamism throughout its modest 80 minutes. The climactic battle between Killer Joe and “Scoop” is a thrilling, desperate collision between shots of haggard, near-dead men and the expressive diagonal lines of railway tracks and piers bisecting the screen. Made easily 5 or more years after American film noir had generally run its course, Ishii’s Black Line is able to deal more explicitly with its subject matter of drugs and prostitution, and in doing so Ishii alludes to his future in Ero guro. Black Line‘s body-consciousness is almost unnervingly apparent. It’s observed in the close-ups and repeated gestures of Machida and Maya. It’s haunted at in the dark eyes and ghoulishly sunken cheeks of Killer Joe. It’s enticed at by the writhing bodies of strippers, transgressed by the cloying femininity of the gei bar’s cross-dressing hostesses, and objectified and dismantled by the dead girl’s body and the nude forms filling the mannequin factory. Overall, Black Line is an eminently satisfying slice of crime cinema, one that pays tribute to the director Teruo Ishii would become and sets the standard by which all other films in the Line series are judged.