An exotic dancer is kidnapped from Tokyo by a betrayed hitman bent on vengeance. Her reporter boyfriend follows their trail to Kobe and to the port city’s dangerous red light district, afraid that she may have been kidnapped by that city’s prostitution ring, the Yellow Line. The only color film in the Line series, Teruo Ishii bathes Yellow Line in ghastly greens and punctuating reds that perfectly express the moral decay of Kobe’s decadent and disreputable kasbah. This seedy vision of underworld crime continues Ishii’s documentary approach to location shooting and his play with American film noir conventions while wallowing in its bizarre setting and garish aesthetic, resulting in a nightmarish, otherworldly atmosphere unlike any other in the series and anticipating the director’s gory classics that followed.
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Vivian Sobchack’s seminal study on the noir chronotope held that American film noir expresses a tension in American culture over returning from the wartime experience to a peacetime domesticity, an idyllic home front nostalgically remembered in retrospect yet indelibly compromised by changes brought on by the war effort. For Sobchack, the chronotope provided a mechanism to explore these changes in gender roles and economy by addressing, in part, film noir’s settings. Film noir conveys the loss of domesticity by eschewing home-like spaces in favour of the liminal, transitory settings of hotels, cocktail lounges, bars, flop houses, and nightclubs. Ishii’s Line series is firmly rooted in this temporary world and none more so than Yellow Line. The film opens with an unnamed hitman (Shigeru Amachi) receiving direction from Agawa (Jun Ôtomo), a gangster, to murder a man later revealed as a Kobe customs chief. After the hit, the assassin discovers that Agawa has reneged on their deal and even sent the police to the scene. Desperate to get out of Tokyo, the hitman forces an exotic dancer, Emi (Yôko Mihara), to escort him to Kobe where they hole up in a dreary hotel in the heart of the Kobe kasbah, a tightly packed collection of alleyways where pimps, peddlers, and prostitutes mix with gangsters looking to line their pockets and foreigners looking to satisfy their prurient appetites. With Emi locked in a hotel room, the hitman traces Agawa through a group of low-level drug dealers in a shooting gallery at the Mon Ami bar to a nightclub called Printemps and, in turn, to his boss, a hypocritical moral crusader and local philanthropist named Matsudaira (Akira Nakamura). The hitman gets his vengeance, gunning down both in cold blood.
While the assassin absconds with Emi, her boyfriend, a reporter named Toshio Mayama (Teruo Yoshida), goes searching for her, made suspicious by an abruptly ended phone call (due to the hitman hanging up Emi’s call from a phone booth), by an unusual audition that sent Emi to Kobe (where the Yellow Line abducts young, Japanese women and sells them off to foreigners), and by the discovery of one of her shoes at the train station (which she kicked off in an effort to leave Toshio a trail). Mayama convinces his boss to let him travel to Kobe to investigate the Yellow Line, search for his girlfriend, and explore the dead customs chief story. With the help of a cigarette peddler, an infamous prostitute called the Moor (a Caucasian actress in blackface), and the police, he manages to cross paths with Emi and the hit man on the way to Matsudaira’s home. As the police converge on the assassin and Emi in a seaside shack, Toshio braves the hitman’s warnings to rejoin Emi. Moved by their love and unable to gun them down, the hitman charges the police, dying in a hail of gunfire.
Yellow Line comfortably wallows in Sobchack’s liminal environments, although the roots of Japan’s postwar anxieties are naturally different from those in American film noir. Yellow Line describes a conflicted nationalism, where young Japanese women (now in the workforce, but limited to secretaries, dancers, and hookers) are exploited and sold to foreign interests by their own countrymen, shipped out from an international port serving as a gateway to the outside world and a breach for all its ills to enter. It’s interesting that this film in the series, connecting the subject crime ring to a broader international socio-political context, is the only one in colour. Credit Ishii and his cinematographer (Hiroshi Suzuki), art director (Keiji Miyazawa), and production designer (Akira Sagawa) with creating such a cheap and dingy aesthetic. Yellow Line‘s washed-out and sickly colours, its grey industrial exteriors, its dim, shallow lighting seems to reflect not just noir’s loss of domesticity, but a kind of lurid exoticism directly connected to Japanese defeat, American hegemony, and an interpolation of the crassness of its consumer culture. Yet Yellow Line seems to go farther, creating a filmic world unlike those in the rest of the series that goes beyond colour-shooting or its Kobe-setting, entering the borderland between reality and dream, between the concrete and the immaterial. Nowhere is this more felt than in the kasbah and its strange mix of false ethnicities embodied by the Moor and the various Japanese extras in face paint and sporting turbans. Moments like these create an air disreputable possibility and unreality within Yellow Line that provides not just a noir-ish disjunction from domestic life, but from lived reality itself. It is here that the film most clearly connects to the director’s gory, body-conscious violence that he would become known for by the end of the decade. Yellow Line stands as the most distinctive film of the Line series for the degree of its liminality, transporting another tale of exploitation and prostitution beyond street-level crime and into a tawdry and carnivalesque dream world of sex and violence. It is here that Ishii lets his ambitions and excesses take fullest flight, and Yellow Line succeeds best when viewed by those willing to relish in Ishii’s vulgar and politically incorrect moralizing.