For vintage Japanese classics Arrow is the place to be this summer. Yasuzô Masumura’s complicated tale of industrial espionage is an attack on the free enterprise system — even good people will do terrible things to get ahead, to prevail over the competition. It’s Tiger Car Company against the Yamato Car Company, winner take all. Plus, the extra feature The Black Report is not filler, but a terrific murder prosecution story, with Masumura’s patented dose of acid cynicism and murky misanthropy.
Black Test Car
1962 /95 min. / Kuro no tesuto kaa
Starring: Jirô Tamiya, Junko Kanô, Eiji Funakoshi, Hideo Takamatsu, Ichirô Sugai, Kichijiro Ueda.
Written by Kazuro Funabashi, Yoshihiro Ishimatsu from a novel by Sueyuki Kajiyama
Produced by Gentaro Nakajima
The Black Report
1963 / 94 min. / Kuro no hôkokusho
Starring: Ken Utsui, Junko Kanô, Hideo Takamatsu, Shigeru Kôyama, Eitarô Ozawa, Bontarô Miake, Mieko Kondô.
Written by Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Yasuzô Masumura
Produced by Hiroaki Fujii, Kazuo Tsukaguchi
B&W / 2:35 widescreen / Street Date September 1, 2020 / 39.95 (Amazon)
Cinematography: Yoshihisa Nakagawa from the novel A Gorgeous Corpse by Sen Saga
Film Editor: Tatsuji Nakashizu
Original Music: Sei Ikeno
Directed by Yasuzô Masumura
The Yasuzô Masumura DVDs released by Fantoma about fifteen years ago were real eye-openers. His intense art-movie horror film Moju (aka The Blind Beast) is deliriously perverse and transgressive. His steamy tale of sexual tyranny Manji (aka Swastika) is the definition of taboo-breaking. Masumura’s social outrage movies hit their issues harder than American films ever have, so much so that he was rejected by some of the most influential Japanese critics. His Red Angel is an anti-war medical shocker about a surgical nurse at the front in Manchuria. It’s as misanthropic as films get. Every Masumura film I’ve seen would be rejected by our Production Code. They’re simply too honest.
Masumura was likely considered a radical. Made in glaring color, his anti-capitalist social satire Giants and Toys is a cinematic scream of protest against the hysterical ‘sell-sell-sell’ advertising hype that marked Japan’s growing consumer-oriented economic boom of the late 1950s. The competition between two candy companies is conducted like a rivalry between gangs. Cutthroat business practices rule.
Masumura’s 1962 drama Black Test Car returns to the world of business competition to draw a parallel between the development of a new car and all-out, take-no-prisoners warfare. Ethics and morals are the first casualties in a system that prioritizes career survival and company victory ahead of human decency. We’re told that this first movie inspired an entire sub-genre of ‘black’ films — not to be confused with film noir. The Tokyo business scene feels like a cramped arena where the competitors barely have enough room to stab each other in the back.
In some things — teenage rebellion movies, graphic violence — Japanese genre filmmaking was always years ahead of Hollywood. I don’t think American films made an industrial espionage film that could touch Black Test Car until 2009’s romantic light comedy Duplicity.
Tiger Motorcar Company versus Yamato Motorcar Company.
Executives at the Tiger Motorcar Company are alarmed when the competing Yamato Company sneaks spies onto their testing grounds, on a day when an important prototype crashes and burns. Cars being tested are considered so secret that when being tested outdoors they’re covered in black cloth to hide their design. Toru Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) heads Tiger’s internal spy force. Their enemy is Yamato’s brilliant, Machiavellian spy chief Matawari (Ichirô Sugai), a former Army Intelligence operative. Onoda and his assistant Asahina (Jirô Tamiya) try several ploys to root out Matawari’s agent within Tiger, but cannot keep Yamato from learning everything about Tiger’s upcoming ‘Pioneer’ car. They try and fail to fool Matawari by forwarding falsified specification documents about the car. Asahina also bribes a printer to get blueprints for Yamato’s new ‘MyPet’ car, which turns out to be an almost exact copy of the Pioneer.
Further efforts to plug the security leak involve bribery, blackmail and the use of a lip reader to snoop on Yamato meetings from afar. Asahina’s fiancée is Masako (Junko Kanô) is a bar hostess. When Asahina discovers that Matawari has a yen for Masako, he urges her to steal the pricing formula for the new MyPet by sleeping with the man. She’ll be doing it for their relationship, Asahina argues, so he can be promoted and they can be married. Masako throws her boyfriend’s suggestion back in his face, but agrees to become a ‘pillow spy.’
Black Test Car doesn’t take the gaudy pop art route of Masumura’s Giants and Toys but instead follows its characters through cramped meeting rooms, tiny neighborhood bars, backrooms and bedrooms. At several intervals we see the high-speed trials, performed on private tracks invariably infiltrated by enemy observers with cameras and recording devices. Masumura’s visual style crams the actors into the frame, often with a foreground character blocking much of our view. Low angles proliferate. Nobody seems comfortable; nobody has time to relax in these functional offices devoid of decoration. Everybody behaves as if job survival depends on what they do in the next twenty minutes.
Tiger security operatives Onoda and Asahina wrack their brains trying to determine which of the Pioneer project’s 35 employees is the mole forwarding information to Yamato. Onoda does everything humanly possible, yet the competition learns everything about their secret car project. When Onoda distributes a fake stat sheet to Tiger’s top executives, the information is in Matawari’s hands in just a few hours. The Tiger leak remains unidentified.
Most of the interest in the fast-moving story centers on Onoda and Matawari’s devious spy methods. Executives are bribed or blackmailed. Subcontractors are plied for information. The need to win is so overwhelming that Asahina easily rationalizes asking his future wife to sleep with a corporate enemy. The same imperative motivates the basically good Onoda to break the law to find out who is leaking information. When he finally identifies the industrial mole, Onoda takes the game much too far.
Black Test Car is the Japanese equivalent of Hollywood business ethics movies like Patterns and Executive Suite. But there’s no comparison — a Hollywood movie with executives behaving like the men of Yamato or Tiger would have been picketed as anti-American propaganda. The show has parallels with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The morally compromised Asahina still considers himself a nice guy, like Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter. A symbolic broken mirror reminded Baxter that his unethical behavior has a price, and Asahi’s betrayal is represented by the ring that Matawari gives to Masako for services rendered. It was originally stolen when Matawari’s soldiers massacred a Chinese town in the war, a reference that damns Japanese business practices as retaining the wartime credo of ‘take no prisoners.’ Masako drops the ring at Asahina’s feet. She says that the precious bauble may be a rock, “but it’s warmer than you.”
The competing ‘high performance sports sedans’ end up looking depressingly similar. The message imparted is that competitive capitalism doesn’t improve products or give the customer more choices. One company simply slays the other to control a market, just as did Capone vs. Moran in gangland Chicago. The final media double-cross plays very much like a modern political dirty trick. Pioneer’s first-day sales look promising thanks to Tiger’s last-minute move to undercut the price of Yamato’s almost identical MyPet. Then the first production car stalls on a railroad track and is destroyed. Its owner howls to the press and makes a show of the ‘killer car’ foisted on him by the criminals at Tiger. Onoda of course smells a rat, and must break all the rules of decency to expose the real scandal behind the manufactured scandal.
The ending of Black Test Car is a surprise in that it breaks with Yasuzô Masumura’s usual uncompromised storytelling. The film ends with Asahina making a gesture much like that of Gary Cooper in High Noon, substituting his Tiger Company Pin for a Sheriff’s badge. Japanese employees of the 1960s pledged total loyalty to their companies as solemn oath, so Asahina’s act is no hollow gesture. The fade-out reconciliation seems to copy that of C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik in the Billy Wilder movie. But what we remember is the rest of the film’s scorched-earth approach to its subject matter.
Around 1962 I remember seeing an import compact Japanese car on display outside a California department store, and being jeered at by the customers as cheap junk. It wasn’t for several years that Japanese cars were accepted, and it can be argued that from the 1980s forward they outpaced Detroit’s products for overall engineering, reliability and practical utility. Only a few montages in Black Test Car show the title car, so don’t expect a movie about the development of an automobile. The Pioneer is almost a symbol of Evil, cloaked in black with only the headlights and windshield uncovered. The Toyota I’ve had for almost twenty years doesn’t seem very Evil to me. It’s a superbly engineered driver-friendly marvel that seldom if ever breaks down. By comparison my earlier American cars were gas-guzzling junk.
Reading the excellent insert pamphlet essay by Mark Downing Roberts, I learn that the ‘black’ film series initiated by Black Test Car was not restricted to stories about corporate espionage. The un-billed second feature on this disc is excellent Masumura, and viewers may like it more than the relentlessly misanthropic main event. The Black Report carries over star Junko Kanô and a number of high quality supporting players. Taken from a popular book, it’s a murder mystery and legal conspiracy story formatted very much like an episode of TV’s Law & Order. A crime is investigated and a case prepared for prosecution, at which time it goes to a courtroom … where things get dicey.
The movie is interesting just to see how the law worked in Japan circa 1963. Trials are before magistrates, not juries, and prosecutors have to come up with compelling evidence and witnesses, not emotional arguments. A prosecutor handling thirty cases goes up against more experienced defense attorneys that have only one case.
Masumura begins with the ripe situation of a company president murdered in his own home. His son implicates the victim’s second, unfaithful wife; hard evidence points to her lover, who had shady financial dealings with the victim. The president had a mistress named Ayako (Junko Kanô again) who also implicates the wife’s lover, Hitomi (Shigeru Kôyama). It’s both a crime of passion and of theft: Hitomi owed the victim 23 million yen. Helped by a trusted police investigator, prosecutor Kido (Ken Utsui) puts together an airtight case against Hitomi, bolstered by hard testimony from various people who knew about money deals, amorous liaisons, etc.. Prosecutor Kido does everything by the book, because success will mean a promised promotion ‘across the river’ to Tokyo, an accomplishment that would skyrocket his career.
But Kido goes up against defense lawyer Yamamuro (Eitarô Ozawa of Ugetsu and The H-Man). The crafty Yamamuro proceeds to futz the case three ways from Sunday, arranging for all the witnesses, even the compelling Ayako, to reverse their testimony in court.
Musumura lifts this narrative with the intensity of his compositions and the clarity of his storytelling. The credits play out over the crime scene investigation. A preponderance of close-ups of affidavits, fingerprints and stacks of documents continues throughout the show. It’s not a trick courtroom drama, as we see exactly what’s happening. By suborning everyone associated with the case — 23 million goes a long way in bribes — almost everyone but the cops and prosecutors turns out to be for sale. Masumura didn’t write the story, but his philosophy of universal misanthropy fits like a glove. At one point Kido curses himself for trusting a witness… and endeavors to be be ruthless in the future.
This is a great courtroom drama, as long as one takes care to keep track of the many characters and their names. Nothing is dumbed-down. Both pictures are terrific, but The Black Report is less disturbing than Black Test Car: it has idealistic characters to root for, and its ending isn’t entirely bleak.
It will be good if more Masumura gems come out — I’ve never seen the highly recommended Blue Sky Maiden or A Wife Confesses, both of which feature the director’s recurring star Ayako Wakao. Just checking the IMDB, I see that Ken Utsui played a juvenile superhero called Super Giant in several movies.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Black Test Car and The Black Report presents fine encodings of both features in stunning B&W Daieiscope. Those lenses are pretty amazing — reportedly anamorphic, they have a good depth of focus and an impressively flat field… no distortion occurs at the edges or in objects that get close to the camera. There are so many extreme depth-of-field shots, that it really looks like flat lenses were in use.
The sound is punchy. The intense Test Car hardly leaves room for a music score. Black Report sneaks in an almost subliminal theme of unease every time one of Kido’s unreliable witnesses falsifies their testimony, making him look incompetent.
The set has been given two interesting, educational extras. Mark Downing Roberts’ insert essay nails down the parameters of the ‘black’ series of films, comparing them to the textbook definition of noir and commenting on Japanese ‘series’ filmmaking in general. He notes that Masumura’s films aren’t exposés of specific crimes, but explications showing show how everyday institutionalized corruption really works. Good idealistic professionals become upscale ‘salarymen’ and concentrate on protecting their careers. But ethics isn’t entirely extinct. An important scene in Black Report sees Kido’s colleague explaining the losing battle of prosecuting crime. When he wishes Kido luck on his expected grand promotion, he’s sincere.
A handsome video essay comes from the noted critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who professes his admiration for Yasuzô Masumura through a brisk, informative outline of the director’s life and films. Masumura isn’t the hottest political firebrand in Japanese filmmaking, and Rosenbaum does admit that some of his films were impersonal works for hire. But there are plenty we haven’t seen that are reputed to be scorchers. Just remembering the impact of Moju convinces us that he’s out of the ordinary… interpreting that film’s premise as a poetic conceit is the only way to not be warped by its content.
Finally, thanks again to the older DVD company Fantoma, for its many eye-opening disc revelations in the early days of DVD… and their introduction to the world of Yasuzô Masumura.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Black Test Car and The Black Report
Supplements: Critical appreciation by Jonathan Rosenbaum; theatrical trailers and image galleries for both films. Illustrated color insert booklet with an essay by Mark Downing Roberts: “A Longitudinal View of Daiei’s Black Series.”
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 28, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson