Alongside Kaneto Shindo, Seijun Suzuki is likely the most prominent filmmaker of the Japanese New Wave to survive the movements of history and the monolithic, occasionally eclipsing achievements of other filmmakers from the country. Perhaps this is because of Jo Shishido, the star of Branded to Kill, whose botched cheekbone surgery, gave him a distinct chipmunk-look that often blurs the line between grotesquely abnormal and oddly handsome. Or rather it might be his penchant for proto-Lynchian aesthetics that, in a world where David Lynch no longer makes films, is a coveted commodity. Most likely, however, is that a generation raised on the genre experiments of Takashi Miike, John Woo, Quinten Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch (who directly references Branded to Kill in Ghost Dog) have rediscovered the perplexingly innovative films Suzuki and his peers were making whose visibility has been inexplicably minimized within the film canon. Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van, his first film of four in 1960, is by no means a masterpiece and is slightly misleading as to the trajectory of his style as the surrealist visuals that would define his output were not intact until his 1963 color-film Youth of the Beast, however it nonetheless announces the arrival of an explosive, raucous talent.
The film begins with a man caressing his rifle, the fetishization of the gun and the gunman1 present from the film’s opening frames. The title sequence bleeds seamlessly into the daring heist of a police transport vehicle. Suzuki’s cross-cutting during this scene is frenetic and escalating, the coverage of multiple perspectives makes for an intense beginning, simultaneously establishing main players in the film.
The friendly, sympathetic guard, Daijiro, whose prisoners escape during the commotion of the attack, becomes interested in the case after being relieved from work. As a film-noir casting the main character as a former cop is a clever maneuver. There is a life expected for him that other cops insist that he should engage with, one of retirement, relaxation and fulfilling aging desires, however, he continues to feel responsibility and obligation towards the case. Much like the American P.I. he is framed as both within and outside of the law. Suzuki more blatantly examines the trope of the femme fatale with the character Yuko. She is distant and enigmatic, but unlike many American femme fatale’s her dangerousness does not stem from her sexual agency, but rather her coldness and presumed knowledge.
Take Aim at the Police Van is least successful in the realm of storytelling. The plot scratches at a coherent mystery and the twist is expected to pack a wallop, however, there are not enough distinct personalities amongst the criminals or police officers to have any two people besides the main characters bubble to the surface. The action scenes, however, are marvelously directed. The aforementioned opening is a powerful thrust into Suzuki’s world of cool, calculated criminals. Daijiro interrogates a man reading a newspaper with a woman lounging behind him on a desk, the camera pulls back slowly and Daijo rips the newspaper out the man’s hand and beats him for information. The rhythm of the violence doesn’t miss a beat, the closest recent parallels are the films of Jia Zhang-ke or Takeshi Kitano. There is a stoicism to the violence that punctuates Suzuki’s more zany moments, for example, a criminal is smoking and his cohort shoots the tops of his cigarette from across the room, but their reactions are largely understated and the scene is not played up despite it’s ludicrousness. The same can be said for a scene where Daijiro, desperately tailing criminals jumps on to the back of their car, hanging onto the bumper, which is filmed with a breezy passivity that gives it a hint of normalcy. On that note the stunt-work in this film is wildly impressive for a B-movie exploitation feature, it’s hard not to gasp when a car stops just inches from running someone over.
The last twenty-five minutes of this film consist entirely of one-long climax that extends from scene to scene, it’s a feat Suzuki would repeat in both Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, however, here and perhaps this is the juvenile quality of the work, it feels positively fresh, as if you can feel Suzuki recognizing he is inventing something wholly his own. For any die-hard film noir fans, Take Aim at the Police Van is a must-see. What it lacks in lucidity it more than makes up for in effortless style and inventive technique. Suzuki declared resoundingly, that here was a filmmaker very much worth watching.
“A dead man can work undisturbed, right?”
- Desser, David “The Gunman and the Gun: Japanese Film Noir Since the Late 1950’s” International Noir, Edinburgh University Press 2014,(112-135).